The Pathfinders Column from the January 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
Socialists who are not among today’s socially-connected youth and who do not read The Sun newspaper will probably never have heard of Jack Maynard, the Brighton YouTube vlogger (like blogger, but with video, geddit?) and will certainly not care that he got himself thrown off I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here late last year after just three days on the show. But the reason for his summary expulsion from this must-be-seen-on if not must-see show is revealing.
The YouTube ‘star’, it seemed, had sent a number of racist and homophobic slurs via his Facebook account which The Sun, that bastion of egalitarian and anti-discriminatory social values, felt morally obliged to bring to the nation’s attention. Despite effusive apologies and energetic denials that these off-the-cuff remarks reflected his real views, Mr Maynard found himself an overnight toxic brand, leaving presenters Ant and Dec with no choice but to announce his immediate departure from the celeb-infested jungle. Oh the fickle finger of fate.
But wait. The slurs in question had been posted six years before, when the fifteen-minute celeb was aged just 17. It didn’t matter. The tabloids had by now got the bit between their teeth and gleefully reported that Japing Jack had also sent text messages importuning a 14-year old girl for nude photos. Sexual exploitation being utterly foreign to the tabloids, this caused a sensation. It didn’t matter that the girl herself, while agreeing that Jack had been a ‘dickhead’, also pointed out that “He was 16, I was 14. He didn’t know how old I was, and I didn’t know how old he was at the time. I cannot stress enough that the messages were harmless” (The Sun, 5 December).
You may also recall the suspension last year of Labour’s MP for Sheffield Hallam, Jared O’Mara, following revelations of homophobic, sexist and racist remarks made online more than a decade previously. Leading the moral charge on that occasion was, surprise surprise, The Sun, which called it a disgrace that Labour bosses had known about these comments for a whole month prior to sacking Mr O’Mara. A whole month. Fancy. Meanwhile another source had this to say about Labour’s supposed ethical inertia: “Labour has become cultish, and now values loyalty to the hard left more than suitability and capability" (BBC Online, 26 October).
What is becoming ‘cultish’ is the idea that whatever you have said at any point in your life remains and will forever remain your viewpoint, as if it is indelibly tattooed on your brain. Once, such comments would have been forgotten or at least hard to dig up. Now that one’s entire history is available in real time on social media, it stops being history at all but becomes part of an extended and eternal present. You can say you’ve changed your view. You can say you don’t believe those things anymore. But there is the evidence for all to see. You said them. You are guilty.
All present and incorrect
One of the lesser known cognitive biases and a veritable plague in the world of bad historical fiction is a thing called ‘presentism’, in which people unfairly judge past ideas and events by the currently prevailing ethical assumptions. Presentism, also known as cultural hypocrisy, is at work in much of the media’s deprecation of past sexual mores among certain celebs in the unreconstructed 1970s. It’s not that past behaviours should necessarily be condoned or glossed over, but such revelations need to be leavened with some recognition that those times were different and that the world has moved on. This acknowledgment of time passing is precisely what is missing from the new illusion of the eternal present.
Much of physics, and indeed science in general, is based upon the principle of symmetry, of numbers balancing on both sides of the equation. But there is one crucial asymmetry upon which the physical universe is founded, and that is time. The second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of entropy, states that the degree of disorder in any closed system must always increase, and never decrease, over time. In other words, time flows in just one direction. Broken cups cannot magically jump back from the floor onto the table edge and reassemble themselves (despite what Stephen Hawking tried to argue in A Brief History of Time). Cold coffee cannot miraculously reheat itself. People cannot ‘un-die’.
This law is the organising principle of matter. It is the thing which oversees the growth of complex systems and their ultimate death and dissipation into chaos. If this law were to be broken, if time were to stand still, not just life but all physical reality would disintegrate. What happens when our modern, virtual world breaks the same law? Does the virtual world also disintegrate? What would this disintegration look like?
It would look like what we’ve got: a world that remembers everything as contemporaneous, the way you watch an old movie whose actors are young while in the real world these same actors are old or dead. It would look like an eternal present where the actor exists side by side with his younger and older selves, extending sideways like an endless series of reflections between two mirrors. It would be a world with an infinity of stories served up in a Cinema of Babel, told for entertainment, without sequence and without consequence. It would be a world where nothing changes and where changes mean nothing. All contradictions exist side by side, without contradicting each other. All ideas are equally valid, all theoretic dials set to zero, all roads circular and all philosophy reinvented as postmodernism. It would be a world of trivia, of the existential absurd, of Bake-Off programmes and the unbearable lightness of being.
It is a world of pseudo-immortals who have forgotten how to forget. One thing we’ve already forgotten is that this eternal present is only about 20 years old. When Princess Diana died in 1997 the world-wide web was still being born. People still wrote letters and sent postcards from holiday and wrote cheques in supermarkets and got lost or stuck in traffic with no way to phone home. Nothing was instant except coffee and mashed potato. Social media meant reading the newspaper in the pub.
For revolutionaries, the eternal present is a place where change can’t occur because people can’t be allowed to change their minds. But we know this isn’t true, and that socialists have come from all walks of life and all political backgrounds, including the Tory Party and even the far right. This is what revolution is. People change. If we remember everything else, let’s not forget that.