There’s a general principal in Macc that we’ll write blogs. There are several good reasons behind this; they’re a good way of setting out our position as an organisation and sharing our values and culture; they can help us engage with the sector and start conversations; they’re more relaxed and personal than formal briefing papers or articles; and they give us a bit more pondering space than the 280 characters on Twitter.
So you’d think it would be easy. Right?
First off, there’s the problem that, as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice said (jokingly) to Mr Darcy, "we are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb." Often when I want to blog about something, I find someone else has already said it a great deal better or I spend far too long overthinking it, and the moment’s passed.
This is somewhat ironic when I generally consider myself to be a good writer. I enjoy the process of writing, and still write and post proper letters to my friends, using a fountain pen on lovely thick paper. I write all sorts of things in all sorts of different forums – magazine articles, song lyrics, research reports, policies, and training material. I write for Mass Observation (which is rather like writing a letter to an unknown reader) and even a personal blog, which I started in case my experience of dealing with bereavement could help other people. Therefore, maybe it’s just that work-related blogs aren’t in my writing comfort zone!
There’s also the problem that all the things I’ve wanted to blog about recently are too political and too Brexit-y, and whenever I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) they’ve been in danger of turning into big rants. It’s amazing how many soapboxes I can fit into a small black rucksack. Talking about general principles in watered-down language feels wishy-washy, but going beyond this risks letting my personal politics show far too much. Mike Wild, our Chief Executive, talked about this in his last blog, saying that whilst we shouldn’t be afraid of tackling political issues head on, party political issues can be dangerous territory for charities. This is especially true in the pre-election period.
However, at the heart of this blog is the feeling that the tools I’ve relied on for debate and constructive argument throughout my career are not as useful as they once were. Straight after university, I went to volunteer at Birmingham Citizens Advice Bureau and my very first piece of work involved gathering data and evidence from volunteers in the city about how paying childcare costs would lead to both an increase in volunteer numbers and the hours they could contribute. That’s how it goes, isn’t it? See something that’s not working very well, gather evidence from a range of sources about how it could be done differently and better, make a case for change and engage constructively with decision makers.
This is changing. What’s the point of being able to construct a rational and well-researched argument when powerful and public people seem to be able to dismiss anything they don’t like as ‘fake news?’ They treat facts as flexible and mutable things, and won’t even engage in constructive debate in the first place. There’s evidence that young people especially are being put off by ‘politics’ being shown as (mainly white middle-class) people shouting at each other in the House of Commons, which also serves to polarise really complex issues into ‘black and white,’ ‘left and right,’ ‘for me or against me,’ and lose all the subtlety of the middle ground. I also find it shocking that in the last few weeks, parliament has had to debate on more than one occasion whether its own members have used language amounting to hate crimes and incitement to violence, and in an atmosphere that MPs and journalists described as ‘febrile,’ ‘toxic,’ and poisonous’.
Social media isn’t helping. There’s a whole new vocabulary evolving to describe the spread of misinformation. Astroturfing, in this context, no longer relates to plastic grass, but to the orchestrated attempt to create the impression that certain ideas and polices have widespread public support. Firehosing is the practice of putting out so much STUFF that no one can possibly check the accuracy of everything, and invariably some not-entirely-true ideas catch on and are rapidly disseminated; the more places in which people see a statement, the more likely they are to believe it. Also, if someone comes out with so many not-quite-right statements all at once that you don’t even know where to start unpicking them, then you may have been Gish Galloped.
On the wider stage, there doesn’t seem to me to be nearly enough outrage that national leaders are known to have disregarded the truth, acted unlawfully and misused funds (I went to a conference recently that said we should all try to be more direct with our language, but stating baldly that national leaders are liars, criminals and fraudsters feels rather too blunt, even if the evidence is there – see what I mean about wishy washy?)
So how should we response?
Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink unpicks the phrase ‘war on terror’ and talks about the military’s difficulty doing this when their version of ‘war’ has certain rules and understandings and processes, which aren’t good or agile enough responses to new threats. I feel a bit like that; that if debate and evidence and engagement and being civil to each aren’t going to work any more, then we as part of the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector, need some new tactics. We need new ways of making sure our voice and influence isn’t lost in this perfect storm of (mis)information, new ways of speaking truth to power, and new ways of standing up for the communities and people we represent. However, what can we do without ‘sinking to their level?’ Any action we take needs to be in line with the values we hold as a sector, the trust that the public has in us and our services, our integrity and transparency, and the accountability we have to our charitable purposes and public benefit. We can’t – and hopefully don’t want to? – use the same sorts of tricks and tactics that we see in the news and on social media daily. We need to continue to occupy the moral high ground, even though that’s sometimes a lonely and windswept place.
So I don’t know what our new tactics might be just yet.
Answers on a postcard, please, as they say. Alternatively, below the line here, or @karen_at_Macc on Twitter.