When Brand met the Belfast Orange, or why the comedy of new media helps us unlearn…

There’s an interesting conference at the University of Ulster coming up on the 10th December, which seems to be asking some of the right questions about social media, its uses in protest and the implications for democratic politics.

The event blurb notes:

Over the course of the last twelve months, Northern Ireland has witnessed social media playing a central role in the nature of politics and protests. The period in the wake of the decision by Belfast City Council to reduce the number of days the Union Flag flies over City Hall in Belfast saw a huge growth in online interactions and protest organisation relating to decisions made by politicians.

Even the would-be ‘leader’ of a ‘beautiful and plausible revolution’ Russell Brand has been to see the folks at Camp Twaddell, the place where a group of loyalists and Orangemen have been camped out since being thwarted by a Parades Commission decision last July. 

In many respects it is a successor to the Loyalist flag protest, Northern Ireland’s first experience of the loosely organised, distributed form of protest we’ve seen elsewhere in the world. Moving around some fixed points, like Naomi Long’s east Belfast constituency offices protesters, were able to move quickly almost at moment’s notice and made it difficult/impossible for the PSNI close down.

The protest initially encompassed a wide spread of activity, from legal protest to obstruction of the highway to arson, attacks and threats of serious physical harm, particularly aimed at individuals associated with the Alliance party. Not that quite so “plausible or beautiful” then.

But it is significant to note that it arose out of a common grievance from one Northern Ireland’s most marginalised communities. They succeeded at wrong footing and then tipping the balance against the current formal leadership unionism.

The format of the flegs protest (if not its politics) is in line with the techniques and approach of the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, or the Indignados in Spain. It’s the same sort of disruptive populism that brought the five star party to such recent prominence in Italy.

Populism works online in part because the hierarchical filters of the older platforms have been removed making everyone a player, democratic mandate or not. Citizen with a vote, or not. But it also works because we are all learning how this new paradigm unfolds.

In the way when kids first got a hold of MySpace or Bebo, we are still in an adolescent stage, where just reaching out to say ‘fuck you’ to a wider system you feel is failing to address (or wilfully ignoring) your concerns is about the most powerful thing we feel we can use it for.

Willed ignorance of the BBC is one accusation in Medialens’ David Cromwell’s critique of Russell Brand’s recent (and compelling) cat fight with Jeremy Paxman. He complains “Brand was selected to appear by media gatekeepers; and media institutions, notably the BBC, escaped serious scrutiny”.

We’ve seen here in Northern Ireland how stories can blaze for days, weeks even, without a hint that anything is going on at the Beeb.

That’s in part because of how the corporation is compelled to act. They must think about the ongoing consequences of anything they could tell us, before they tell us.

Cromwell’s piece features a picture of the foyer in the BBC’s original Broadcasting House in London. Emblazoned in gold is a long Reithean prayer in Latin, which comprises the hope…

…that good seed sown may bring forth a good harvest, that all things hostile to peace or purity may be banished from this house, and that the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness.

The challenge is new media is not yet clear. It can give public voice to the voiceless but it has no means to project much other than the power to disrupt or pull down.

It’s akin to the role played by ‘Comedy’ in the earliest formalised democracies in Greece, which give voice to dissent, and point up the errors of the great and the powerful within the relatively safe, yet powerful, context of drama.

Comedy’s counterpart ‘Tragedy’ was more of an ordered exploration of a serious shared dilemma head on. In confronting the Populis it also informed them of the complex issues facing those they had elected.

Everywhere within the social media world the former is in much greater evidence than the latter. But ‘Comedy’ was also about unlearning old ways and opening up new possibilities.

As my colleague John Kellden has noted, “people are pretending there are spectator sports to be played. In a global network, there isn’t.”

The new comedy of the digital commons may be distasteful to the old Reithean values of the current establishment. It’s not as though those old tragedian values are wrong or can be uselessly thrown away. Howard Jacobson commenting on Brand got it just about right:

I was reminded of those interminably tedious clowns in Shakespeare who mix madness with matter. These are impossible to reason with, since the moment you tackle them on matter they take cover in madness. Pertinent they might sometimes be, but they are seldom there when the essential business of the play is being settled.

Rather it is that as social and political beings we have a long long way to go to get a solid understanding the Bacchanalian circus that is currently social media. We need to get beyond that block and fasten down the real (and tragic) business of the day.

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