The intolerance of our remembrance

It’s that time of year again, remembrance season is upon us and it seems to me that the politics of remembrance this year is almost as ghastly as that in Westminster.

Debates are raging daily between left and right, old and young, academics and non-academics over a variety of issues from the politicisation of the poppy to the wider commercialisation of remembrance. Defining yourself as a poppy wearer or a non-poppy wearer has become as divisive an issue as Brexit and to be honest… it is all rather boring. Through the constant haze of people passionately asserting that everyone and their dog has forgotten and people ‘no longer care’, I wonder why it is that discussions have become so widespread and the rhetoric so extreme. A large part of this, I think, is the impact of the social media & 4th industrial revolution on our culture of remembrance.

Yes, we are currently living through an industrial revolution. The majority of us are no doubt familiar with the 1st industrial revolution – that of mechanisation and the 2nd – that of mass production, but have we really given significant consideration to the 3rd revolution – that of electronics and IT systems, or the 4th – the ‘data’ revolution?

The 4th revolution has had a huge impact on our culture of remembrance, because technology has not only changed the way in which we do things in our day to day lives, it has fundamentally changed us. For the first time in history social media has given normal people the ability to make their opinions known to an incredibly large audience. A character limit (as on Twitter) gives a sense of urgency to these opinions and has resulted in a reduction in our communication filters, as we are pushed to ignore peripheral debates and instead focus on one key point. This has led to a break down in the barriers of what we feel it is socially acceptable to say to one another. By providing people a platform with such a wide reach, yet subjecting this to such constraints, we have given the gift of increased freedom of speech with one hand and restricted that communication with the other. 

Metcalfe’s law states that the effect of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users in the system. To illustrate this, consider the time it has taken for changes in our communication to reach 50 million users: the telephone took around 50 years, TV – 22 years, the Internet – 7 years and Twitter just 2 years! Having our communication methods shift in such a rapid period of time is new ground, and I believe we are yet to reconcile traditional values with this aspect of modern society. Our collective culture of remembrance is arguably one of the most sacred of British values, the rituals crafted over decades. It is deeply embedded in our culture, so it seems obvious to me that it cannot escape the impact of social media and new technologies. Much of the animated debate regarding the rights and wrongs of remembrance that I witness on Twitter are reflective of not just the changing ways in which we carry out acts of remembrance, but largely the simple fact that we are now able to have these debates on a scale previously unheard of. Where in the past discussions would be limited to a small circle of friends in the pub, one can now tweet a view that has the potential to reach an audience of millions in minutes. This not only spreads debate like wildfire but acts as an accelerant.

Consider this alongside the breakdown in traditional communication standards resulting from Twitter’s character limit. In order to save space in a Tweet people tend to remove anything they deem as superfluous; for many users this includes qualifiers that they would include in face to face debate such as ‘I think’ or indeed elements of dialect designed to ensure politeness or a level of formality (since the nature of social media is informal in itself). With this erosion of socially acceptable language in use in exchanges with strangers, is it any wonder that the resulting arguments tend to the extreme and the nuance, compassion and acceptance of acts of remembrance as subjective are lost or fail to gain consensus? In this age of technological advancement, our self-image is of forward thinking and inclusive communities but in a way, social media has revealed us to be far more intolerant of views and practises that contrast to our own than we like to believe. This is highlighted particularly in the ‘poppy debate’ where divides are made clear between those of different political persuasions, generations and military experience. The fast paced nature of Twitter means we are often quick to judge, quick to respond, and do so with brevity and frankly at times out right rudeness, which would not be acceptable in other forms of communication.

Scenes at the Menin Gate of spectators holding phones aloft, not behaving in the traditionally accepted manner but instead engaging in the act of remembrance via technology have come under increasing criticism – but have remembrance practises not always had an element of fluidity to them, reflecting changes in our society? Is this adaptability in the past not part of the reason Armistice survives so strongly within our national consciousness?

I don’t know, I’m only musing, but I challenge you the next time you feel the urge to tell someone online what is wrong or right or send a swift derisive reply, mock or express your anger, to ponder on our culture of ‘remembrance intolerance’ and ask ‘what will this comment achieve?’. We cannot escape the changes in our society that technology brings, no matter how uncomfortable they may make us feel as they challenge the established rituals, or fan the flames of debate, so how do we integrate the two things? I feel that we must try harder, because if we cannot reconcile remembrance with the 4th revolution, there is a greater risk of younger generations rejecting the tradition of remembrance in its entirety.

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