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Jon Ronson: 'Everything's become a culture war'

All debate these days is a battle for one ideology’s dominance over another – and the ever-present threat of being cancelled, says the journalist and filmmaker.

Photo: Christopher Lane/Contour by Getty Images

Whether we like it or not, we are all combatants in a raging culture war. From following Covid guidelines and Brexit beliefs to the podcasts we listen to and jokes we find funny, the battle for influence over what we think and feel has become weaponised by an increasingly divided and polarised society. 

Online, it can seem that everyone is either a snowflake or anti-vaxxer, with little heard from anyone whose views aren’t one extreme or the other. So how did we get here? 

For the last couple of decades, Jon Ronson has been the foremost chronicler of the counterculture, tracking the voices that have shifted from the fringes to the driving seat. Extremists are steering political and popular debate, pulling the strings that have hamstrung us in so many ways. 

Exhibit A: Donald Trump.  

“Trump was a Rorschach test,” Jon Ronson says from New York, where he’s now based. “Half the country found themselves agreeing with him and the other half of the country found themselves physically repelled. And neither side can really understand the other at all.

“Everything’s become a culture war,” he continues, “That’s obviously very dysfunctional with mask wearing or vaccines. In America, the way we feel about Covid isn’t broken down by age, it’s broken down on political lines. So a young Democrat is more nervous about Covid than an old Republican, which is kind of extraordinary given the statistics about survival rates.”

How things fell apart

Ronson’s podcast Things Fell Apart traces the genesis of some of the culture wars that dominate today – abortion, trans rights, what’s taught in schools – to the politicisation of the evangelical Christian right in the 1970s. 

“You have the odd flashpoints, like burning Beatles records in the American South, but it took a few years for the counterculture to be noticed by the American Christian right,” Ronson explains. 

“They were going to their own churches, they were consuming their own media. I don’t think they were worried about Allen Ginsberg or Bob Dylan in the ’60s, they barely would have registered on their radar. 

“But in the early ’70s it came to them in the form of busing [students transported to different districts to diversify the racial make-up of schools] and eventually, the counterculture of the late ’60s made its way into school textbooks. That’s what really kicked off the war at the current level of intensity that it is now.” 

These ideologies and attitudes created waves that rippled out over the years, turned into tsunamis by social media. And it’s not by accident. In one of the episodes, Ronson interviews Brad Templeton, the first person ever to be publicly shamed on the internet. 

Back in 1988, the early World Wide Web was limited to academics posting on message boards. Templeton tried to liven up the nascent net by posting jokes. One concerned a Scotsman and a Jew. A couple of users objected and the joke became a test case of what freedom of speech would look like online. AI pioneer John McCarthy of Stanford University argued at the time that, “We are exploring cutting-edge computing technology. We need to discover the limits of free speech bias by finding them. Or crossing them.” 

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And welcome to the internet today! The anarchic free for all where offence or misinformation lives happily alongside cat gifs and Wordle because of that joke. If you’re wondering, it’s not that offensive. Probably wouldn’t even make a Jimmy Carr stand-up set. 

As I speak to Ronson, Carr is generating outrage on Twitter with a line about gypsies and the Holocaust taken from his Netflix special, but this is happening every day now, notes Ronson. It’s outrage that powers so much digital discourse. 

“Very often we are being manipulated into thinking it by our tech gurus, the libertarian tech utopians who control the way the internet works,” Ronson says. 

“People are much more outraged than they used to be because of the way the algorithm works. But saying that, I think outrage is very real too. The last time I felt outrage was over fucking Partygate. I’m just… I’m horrified.” 

Is that partly the point, we become outraged by bad jokes and numb to political scandal? 

“Well, sitting here in America [the UK] feels like a healthy democracy. The Republican Party over here, with one or two exceptions, just got in line behind Trump. But watching people within the Conservative Party outraged for good moral reasons, outraged by his absence of morality, felt very healthy to me.” 

Time to cancel cancel culture

In 2015, Jon Ronson published So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed about the growing trend of attacking a person’s statement or view online by waving it in front of others and hoping it serves as a red rag to a bull and causes a pile-on. 

“One guy reviewed So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed saying that he had been beaten up in real life and he’d been mobbed on Twitter – and being beaten up in real life was much worse. But even then, back in 2015, I thought, I’m not sure how true that is. The consequences of being beaten up on social media can go everywhere. You can lose your job, your reputation. Things spiral, you can get depressed. One hundred thousand people screaming at you on Twitter can arguably be more psychologically damaging than a couple of people beating you up after a football match. 

“When the book first came out some people would say, ‘Oh, if you play with the Twitter toy, it’s your fault if you get hurt,’ which is another way of saying the internet is not the real world. But the internet is the real world.  

“We had a Twitter president – democracy nearly died because of our Twitter president! Luckily, the institutions held, but will they hold next time?” 

Isn’t it just a very vocal minority? 

“Even if it is a small number of people, they still have a disproportionate influence,” Ronson says. 

“The whole debate’s a mess. One of the worst things that happened was the invention of the term cancel culture. It incorporates so many wildly different sets of circumstances; from politicians committing sexual assault to agent provocateur columnists to private people being torn to shreds because of some badly worded joke on Twitter. Everyone’s dizzy trying to make sense of it, but part of the reason is because those three sets of circumstances should never be lumped together.” 

Of course, Ronson would say this. He’s being cancelled right now. 

It’s back to the textbook debate. Last year a parent in Arizona took issue to passing references to pornography and bestiality in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which was an optional text for advanced students, and got the book banned. Three teachers were suspended; two were reinstated, the principal, for some reason, was not. 

“I’ve always been really proud of the fact that particular book is liked by people across the political spectrum,” Ronson says. “It’s a book that’s critical of some of the weapons that are used these days on social media. That usually tallies with what conservatives think so it felt ironic that it was being banned by that crowd. 

“It’s happening in Texas now. And I’m less upset because I don’t believe any teachers’ jobs are in jeopardy. This time around I’m thinking, oh that’s a good club to be in.” 

All publicity is good publicity, right? 

“That’s the thing, Maus has become the totem so is getting all the sales. The rest of the list have to share a much smaller slice of pie.” 

Speaking of authors of ill repute, Ronson’s books sit on my bookshelf next to JK Rowling’s. Everyone else has distanced themselves from her because of her outspoken views on trans rights, so should I move the books? 

“The trans debate has become so disproportionate. So many people are defining themselves by that debate. 

“My only public contribution to the trans debate other than the story on Things Fell Apart was telling Graham Linehan that I thought he was acting like a bully. And as a consequence, Graham has tweeted hundreds of times about me – two Christmas Days running – and I think there’s a lot of people out there who think that my public comments have been more than that. But in fact all I did was tell Graham he was acting like a bully.” 

What about Things Fell Apart being available on Spotify – will you do a Neil Young and remove it in protest of Joe Rogan spreading false facts about vaccines? 

“I’ve been on Joe Rogan’s show twice so it would be a little churlish for me to do that. I wish there was a better fact checker on the show but for me, it’s a case of defeat bad ideas with good ideas, don’t defeat bad ideas with getting him silenced. Not that Joe Rogan would ever be silenceable.” 

How to end the culture war

So if we want to break down the echo chambers what should we do? 

“One thing I’d suggest is read a wider variety of media,” Ronson says. “Both the British media and the American media have their own dysfunctions. The British media’s dysfunction tends to be a sort of knee-jerk adversarial quality. It’s better than it used to be, better than the Paxman days. The dysfunction of the American media is that it’s very partisan, they give very curated views. 

“So I’d say read more media, listen to other people’s points of view. Be careful about rushing to silence voices. I’m not some crazy free-speech absolutist, but I do think that there’s a big danger of a slippery slope. And if you really want to pile in on someone on Twitter, wait two days. Have a two-day cooling off period because history has shown that many times we tear somebody apart and two days later it turns out they haven’t done it, or our information was so bad. Twitter’s a terrible information swapping service. 

“So patience, curiosity. Where possible, empathy.” 

Jon Ronson’s Things Fell Apart LIVE will tour the UK from March 29.

jonronson.com

@jonronson 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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