Suffolk libraries and political thuggery

Thuggery online is a problem for the ordinary blogger.  Many of us have had to close our comments, or else ignore whatever is in them, or both.  Too often our peace of mind is at the mercy of the online equivalent of a lynching, and the ordinary victim may not even be that sure as to what on earth has happened to him.

For this reason, it’s worth detailing a politically motivated attack on myself, undertaken yesterday and today.  If you blog, it’s worth familiarising yourself with the tactics employed here.  Once you realise it’s a cold-blooded process of inflicting pain in order to silence, you will feel less compunction in defending yourself.

Yesterday I wrote what I believed to be an innocuous piece about poor service at Suffolk libraries, based on personal experience.  After writing it, I emailed the URL to Suffolk County Council, suggesting that it be passed to their media team for comment.

I received no response from the council.  But this afternoon, when I came back, I found a series of abusive “comments” by first-time commenters on the article.  These I traced back to a blog, http://rosehillreaders.wordpress.com/, and a twitter feed:

I can only presume that one of the council officials, rather than addressing my post, decided to slip the word to his political allies that someone needed a thumping.  For how else would my specialised blog come to the attention of these people?

Of itself the blog looks like a harmless political blog, campaigning against the closure for cost-saving reasons of some small local libraries.  It’s a campaign that, on the face of it, any of us might support.

But there’s no name on the blog — never a good sign.  Who is this blog?  And the people who arrived … well, here are some extracts from the “comments”:

“I couldn’t disagree with you more (and that’s ignoring your puerile sexism). … Besides, why don’t you head upstairs if you want to read in silence?”

“You just seem to want it to be for those who would want the same high brow books as yourself. You would be the first to complain if it closed. If the Tories get their way there will be no libraries left in this County- that should please you!”

“If you want there to be any libraries left, in Suffolk, you would be better served by using your blog to champion their place in the community, rather than making patronising and uninformed attacks on them and their staff.”

“‘Mummy, Mummy, what’s a misogynist? she asked…(blah, blah, blah, oh dear, my small female brain seems to have short circuited.)”

“You are correct in your assertion that women make mistakes. Your mother giving birth to you is a prime example of such poor judgement.”

These were not comments on my post — this was heckling, this was personal abuse intended to hurt.  I’ve seen this kind of thing before, when “comments” are used to try and give a blogger a slapping, to intimidate, to harass, anything to stop him writing on the subject.

Most bloggers tend to be taken by surprise by this kind of comment.  Being decent folk themselves, they presume the comment writers are sincere.  They foolishly try to respond, to defend themselves, to explain.  All they are doing, of course, is allowing their assailants to change the subject from “Why Suffolk libraries are not very good” to “Why Roger Pearse is a bad person”.

It’s classic troll territory.  No normal person likes being on the receiving end of this kind of thing.  Everyone finds it unpleasant.  Everyone would like to avoid this.  And so, in order to avoid it, people avoid talking about things which are liable to get them a cyber-lynching like this.

However, I’ve played before.  I didn’t even pause, but the hit the delete key on each of them, without even bothering to read past the first stock jeer.  They’re writing to upset and manipulate me; so why should I bother to allow their words past my eyeballs?  And I don’t.

But of course I knew what would come next.  Usually these creeps split into two groups.  One lot shriek crude abuse; the other lot pretend to be polite.  The idea is that the first lot may get canned, but most people, in order to show that they are reasonable, will be disposed to be seen to be friendly towards the second lot, who can then try to manipulate this.  Usually the latter lot will try to suggest the *victim* is being rude, or is in the wrong.  Once again, they want to change the subject to “Is Roger Pearse a bad person”.

The normal approach to try, is to claim that I was being a “censor”, that I was attacking free speech, and again try to get me to explain, to justify myself, to put myself on the defensive, and so forth, to get me on the defensive.  Same aim, different game.

Nor was I disappointed:

“None of those comments were abusive in any way.  They simply put forward an alternative viewpoint.  Freedom of speech cannot be cast aside on a whim.”

“I have read your comments policy, can you just clarify what this means … just trying to be clear on why you delete certain comments.”

“I’m sorry to say this (wait, no I’m not!) but this post reeks of misogyny. Please stop.”

“Perhaps we can add cowardice to that, too? If you are offended by being accused of misogyny then please defend your comments.”

“I see you have removed my comment.  I screengrabbed it in case you had done so. Can you please explain why my comment was removed?  I will simply have to reproduce it elsewhere in reference to this post otherwise.”

“The problem is, Roger, all the polite comments (and the majority were polite) ARE relevant as this blog references freedom of speech. I am bemused as to why some of these comments (including mine) have been deleted and I will be posting them elsewhere to underline the point.”

The sincerity of the last comment may be judged from the fact that, after I banned this commenter, he kept trying to post under other user names, determined to “get at me” somehow.  And what kind of commenter first screen-grabs his comments?  Only one who is out to cause trouble.  And needless to say, when I posted a comment on the originating blog, complaining about their action, it was silently deleted.

Much of this is like the sort of things that happened in the playground at bad schools.  Yes, we even had the bully’s old favourite, “You’re not being bullied / harassed / whatever, it’s not our fault, what is happening to you is your fault!”  The thug always denies responsibility, and blames the victim:

“I must say that I don’t think any of them were abusive: they challenged some of your premisses and your own offensive statements towards women but to describe the comments as ‘abusive’ seems something of a stretch.”

“I’m interested, also, that you suggest that you consider people disagreeing with you to be in some way flaming when I might also point out that your post (as demonstrated by the many comments!) is, by your definition then, more than a bit troll-y.”

It’s all rather amusing, if you know what to look for and can maintain a certain detachment.   You can even tick off the standard attempts at manipulation!  “Personal insult”? — check.  “Attempt to change the subject to me personally”? — check.   “Claim of rudeness”?  — check.  “Claim of political incorrectness”? — check.  “Attempt to blame the lynch-mob victim”? — check.  “Attempt to claim that politeness demands I do this or that”? — check.  “Attempt to claim that preventing this game is ‘censorship'”? — check.  And so on.

But it is not innocent.  Someone less experienced in the ways of thuggery online could be badly hurt and upset by this.  This is deliberate violence, intended to give pain just as  much as a physical beating would be.

In this case, it’s actually rent-a-mob violence, orchestrated for political ends under the misapprehension that I was One Of The Enemy.  Unbeknownst to me, the library service is currently a political hot-potato.  The council wants to close some of the libraries.  Some  honest people are opposed; and some of the usual left-wing thugs are along for the ride.  In this case one of the thugs was tipped off about my post, and invited other thugs to put the boot in, without even realising that I hadn’t commented on The Cause at all!

Watch for the signs, people.  That delete key on the comments box is there for a reason.  Use it mercilessly, if you get even the faintest feeling of discomfort.  You’re contributing to the web; such commenters are there only to beat you up and damage what you’re doing for their own selfish ends.

13 thoughts on “Suffolk libraries and political thuggery

  1. Roger; It’s very unfortunate this happened to your blog. You are obviously not a bad person. After I saw this post I went back read your library post, my response would be its probably about budgetary cutbacks. The playgroup will be about “making it friendly for people with families” or some-such bureaucratic-political nonsense like that. The basic impulse of which, if not the detailed policy implementation, probably comes from the council or the politicians in charge, not the librarians. As does the budget.

    However, why is it “left wing thuggery”, as opposed to just simple “thuggery”? Obviously there are some people who are involved in that library campaign who have a lot of emotional energy invested in it and they let it out irrationally in your comments. This has nothing to do with whatever political orientation they profess. As one of your fellow classicists, and an actual paid-up but inactive member of a social-democratic party, *I* am finding that casual usage of the term “leftist” and its derivates as a casual insult to be a type of rhetorical thuggery in and of itself. You are saying here that I’m a thug, just because I profess left-wing views and my political philosophy is orientated about social equity and open access to education and health care. I won’t deny that some leftists engage in bad behaviour; but so do some right-wing people – ask a climate scientist. Irrational vitriol is not a feature that only one side or the other engages in. I certainly don’t like being de-facto lumped into a group with what is after all a rhetorical tactic designed to negate my political views by simple association.

    I recently started to unsubscribe my RSS feeder from a number of ‘big-name’ classics blogs who started on this bent or similar ones (usually unprompted) such as attacking other scholarly disciplines as entirely unworthy and I don’t want to do it to yours because it’s interesting and engaging in a scholarly manner!

  2. Hi Scott,

    It’s a relief to get a sensible comment — thank you. And thank you for your kind words.

    I will respond a little cautiously, because it is evident that our politics are different, and I have no wish to give inadvertant offense. Politics is one of those things on which people have strong views, and which have a great potential to make people dislike each other who might otherwise have been friends. Few of us are influential, and our political views are seldom of any importance. It is one of the depressing features of our day that agreeing to disagree has more or less vanished from the landscape.

    Now I do agree that thuggery is thuggery whoever does it, and I did wonder whether I should be specific in this post. I have an iron rule that I don’t post on politics here, as a matter of principle, precisely because it is liable to introduce discomfort to those of my readers who hold different political views to my own. I read this blog or that for their content on antiquity; not to learn that the author is, from my point of view, a hateful arse (which is the entirety of what the strong expression of political views different from our own is likely to convey to us). The only exception I make to this is issues of freedom of speech online, and this is in self-protection: the threat to this is great and increasing.

    So why did I name the guilty here? Well, in this case the abusers made a point of using left-wing identity politics invective. This political stuff was utterly irrelevant; but they *chose* to do it, as a way to express their malice towards me. Let them hang from their own hatred, I felt, and since they did it for a cause, let us identify that cause.

    I did first send a message to their blog, reproaching them for their conduct, but got no reply, and the message was just deleted. So … they got this post instead.

    You’re right that I wasn’t having a go at the lowly serfs doing the job: a fish rots from the head. The laxity and negligence were all, in my opinion, caused by a lack of direction for the whole thing, right from the top. My impression, based on what I was seeing, was that there was really nobody at the helm, and the staff had just adjusted to the lack of direction, as human beings will, as best they could. No-one will labour to do things, if they get no thanks for it.

    You know, if the council is trying to close the libraries, that indicates precisely the same thing — that the councillors, who should understand what these are for, see only a drain on the funds they exact from us, and have no idea why they are obliged to spend it. They have votes to buy — and doubtless they ask who needs books when the proles have wikipedia? The campaign to close libraries is another symptom of “nobody home”, in other words.

    If I was the sort of person who could do something political, I’d try to find a way to change this. Sadly my health forbids.

    All the best,

    Roger Pearse

  3. On mature reflection — no blogger can think before writing, you know, or they’d never write anything! –, I think you are right, and I have altered the post title accordingly. The key point is the thuggery, not the politics that inspired it.

  4. Roger your comments are erudite and considered as always. On my own reflection I was probably being hypersensitive anyway. I also find it interesting that if people on both sides of the political spectrum can find it appalling that services like local libraries are being slowly strangled by their political masters, how such things then end up happening anyway? Myself, I blame the slow intrusion of the economic imperative into all facets of life, from family to religion to education and the like.

    I think as classicists we are used to looking at societies which are radically different to our own. We can see that in classical society the “rich” (e.g. the Roman senate) competed for prestige not money (per se) – and those societies had ways (ethical and religious usually) to have the powerful act in ways that delivered benefit back to the society at large at least to some extent.

    But in modern society the imperative for anything is nearly always monetary. A dry cost-benefit is always the only reason to do anything and profit the only motive. Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries various institutions of Church and secular society have ceased to be “important”; as in most people just ignore them now, whereas in the past they acted as stabilisers of people’s moral attitudes and behaviours. Nothing has replaced them. Whereas education was once seen as a force for “moral improvement” even if for sometimes imperfect reasons it’s just now seen as an enabler for making worker-ants with all the correct skills to the point where in my own country (Australia) big companies who destroyed their own training programs years ago constantly complain that universities don’t produce graduates with the “skills” they immediately need, whereas 20 years ago they’d just take university graduates with good grades in any topic, put them into programs which taught them the work-skills. Universities (and public libraries) are just seen in a purely utilitarian light that is meant to provide for a “job market”. Students even demand it now.

    I’ve rambled enough for now I think!

  5. I cannot believe that a private email sent to a library no less, was put out for public consumption. This alone is absolutely apalling behaviour! This should be investigated, you really should complain.

    As for the subsequent behaviour, well you’ll know how familiar it all sounds to me. But you’re dead right when you talk of detachment; that’s the only way.

    Although they try to make it a personal issue, it’s not personal really, they employ these strategies with any number of total strangers that they feel have tragressed their extremist ideology.

  6. Hi Stuart, — Yes, I know you’ve had the same treatment, in a different context. Your last bit is well said, and bang on. This is a strategy. The “comments” are not comments at all, but components in the online equivalent of a baseball bat. The only possible response is to delete comments copiously, and delete the bogus whining about “free speech” — which of us, as private individuals, has any duty to allow total strangers to scream abuse at us on our private web log? — with equal abandon.

    These particular people don’t even care about libraries, I think, judging from the comments complaining about how I must be too bookish. And I see that they seem to be running similar campaigns all over the country, wherever a cash-strapped conservative council is starting to move in this direction. I fear, sadly, that this issue of libraries — about which many of us might feel uncertain — is just a useful tool with which to harass their political foes. I think this is a handful of leftist activists, pretending to be local wherever they are running a campaign.

  7. Hi Scott — much good sense there. I too notice the rotting down of institutions, of much the same kind as happened under the early Principate. (Have you read Martial’s epigrams? Lots of examples of this in progress there).

    The thing about libraries is that I really do think a hard economic case can be made. But it never is. Instead people rely on sentiment, and that doesn’t wash.

  8. Hello Roger, my name is Abigail Barker andI am a member of Rosehill Readers, and the person who started our blog. There are no names on the blog as several of us contribute to it, but you raise a valid point, I will change this in the near future. We have nothing to hide, indeed, as we have been campaigning against the closure of all Suffolk libraries for nearly a year now,people who are interested in saving the library service certainly know who we are, we have been on local television and radio news and in the EADP and Evening Star on several occasions with our campaign.

    I suspect we will never agree on how we feel about libraries, but I wanted to clarify one point. I found your blog post as library campaigners nationally search for stories on the library service, a quick search for ‘Suffolk libraries’ returns your blog post. I can assure you that we are in no contact with Suffolk County Council, I read your post and was saddened and angered by your views on our wonderful (yet underfunded and under threat) library service. I suspect Suffolk County Council has an even lower opinion of Rosehill Readers than you do.

  9. Roger, you may recall I commented on your post about the newly discovered Galen earlier this year, having heard Vivien Nutton and others speak about it at the New Light on Ancient Medicine seminar. I’m also a member of the Voices for the Library team, http://www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk/, a national group campaigning for public libraries.
    I think it’s important to make clear that, in what Philip Pullman called the war against stupidity, the battle-lines are not drawn on party-political lines. Most in the news of the local councils who are on the side of stupidity at the moment are Brent (Labour), Doncaster (Labour), Gloucestershire (Conservative) and Somerset (Conservative). No one political party has a monopoly.

    (Comment edited)

  10. Hi Abigail — Thanks for your note. Yes, you should definitely have a “who we are” page on it. I have recently been the victim of people hiding behind fake identities in order to do harm, and I find that I am far from alone. Indeed I sense that there is a general rising tide of suspicion in the UK towards anonymity and a disposition to treat everything anonymous as suspect and probably malevolent, and with good reason.

    On your other point, I am disappointed that you suppose that I am opposed to libraries. On the contrary, I am very much in favour of them. I acquired my education in patristics through Ipswich Central Library, which is why I feel such outrage at the combination of indolence, greed and negligence that I witnessed last week. Someone like myself, living away from academic libraries but in need of access to books, must feel the keenest interest in the question of local libraries. A heavy exaction is made on local taxpayers under threat of prison in order to fund libraries. I have not noticed that exaction diminish in recent years, nor any intention to do so. So when I find evidence of utter mismanagement, I will say so. It is my money.

    I was entirely unaware of this matter of closing down libraries, and what I know of it now comes from the messages sent to me (most of them rude, offensive and quarrelsome — what a way to win friends!) and an article in the current issue of Private Eye that I read yesterday, which stated — can it be true? — that one council had simply sent the books from a closed down library off to a dump as waste paper. Sadly I do not have the strength to engage in politics, however evil the days in which we live. Thus you will appreciate my surprise at being identified as a combatant in a struggle, the existence of which was unknown to me.

    I am quite surprised to hear that my obscure and specialised blog came up in a Google search on a political issue, but if you say that it did, then of course I believe you. But you might want to think before launching your legions at random members of the public! — Every normal person would be unhappy about the way that Suffolk Libraries are being run, and most will be potentially allies.

    I’m not sure what is proposed, as I say; but if Private Eye is correct, it is unlikely to be good for anyone.

  11. Hi Tom, — No, I wasn’t aware of this. I knew nothing of this business until a bunch of thugs turned up on this blog, shrieking hate and abuse at me. (If they hadn’t barracked me with the slogans of identity politics, I should have known nothing of their affiliation; but if someone makes a point of it, I’ll make that point back.)

    I’m interested to know that this is not a simple matter of left vs right. But I can make little sense of the politics here.

    My own demand is that, if money is taken from me under threat of prison to pay for libraries — and it is, and I notice no intention to reduce that exaction — then I expect it to be used to provide libraries, and a good quality library service. What I found last week in Ipswich library was a shambles, and I said so.

  12. Hi Roger,

    Thanks for deleting those posts. It saves those of us interested in the subject matter from the tedious job of separating the wheat from the chaff of self-interested, moralistic posing.

    You did the right thing. Not that you need me to tell you that. Again, thanks.

  13. Hi Rob, — Thank you very much for the support! Yes, all those “comments” were really just an attempt to “get at” me, rather than contributions to the debate. They weren’t comments on the post at all.

    I have done a little searching around the web to see if I can find out what is going on with the UK library service, and I can’t find out. There’s plenty of agitprop, but the reason why local authorities are closing libraries — and they must have a reason, and would hardly be doing so without encouragement — does not appear. Since I don’t know what is intended by whoever is setting all this up, it’s hard to say whether it would be a good thing or not. On the face of it, it looks like a bad thing.

    My plea was for better quality service. I doubt that will be on anyone’s minds in all this rumpus.

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