I gave a talk at Conway Hall for the Story Festival 2016, on the subject of writing journalism and social commentary in the social media age. The text of speech, entitled “Writing with an Open Wound”, is below; if of interest, please share.
That moment just before I press “publish” on my latest blogpost is often my loneliest as a writer. I say that because, each time that I write a particularly impassioned opinion piece, the three-stage process is always the same. First, I see a story in the media that attracts my fury enough to make me take to my laptop. Secondly, I sit in furious isolation for a few hours, tapping away frantically at my keyboard. Thirdly, finally, I look at what I have produced, and the question is always the same: “Are you seriously going to post this?”
This talk is about precisely that scenario – about writing with an open wound, of putting your honest view out into the world in the full knowledge that it may respond with a storm. Of course, this is a relatively new phenomenon. Only a few years ago, you could file a weekly column in a national newspaper and you might never hear from those who loved it or hated it, since the replies would be first be picked up and filtered by a discerning editor. Now, though, anything opinionated that you post on social media can be met with the angriest of comments. In fact, there is a growing likelihood that it will be. How, in such an environment, can journalists say what they feel needs to be said?
Well, I have no simple answers: I can only say how I do it, and how I will continue to. On the morning of the 6th of December 2013, I posted perhaps my most-widely shared article. I say “perhaps” because I still don’t have software on my website which tells me how many people have read my work – this might seem naive, but there is something I quite like about knowing that a piece of writing is simply out there by itself, getting shared and hopefully not only resonating but also changing minds. I was inspired to write the article by the events of the night before, when I had come home from teaching a group of students to see that Nelson Mandela had passed away. As is the case with all public figures when they pass away, a conversation immediately began on Twitter about what their legacy might be.
Of course, Mandela was a controversial person to many, at least in those stages of his career when polite society was far more comfortable with the concept of apartheid than it is today. Towards the end of his days, though, Mandela was regarded much more by many people as little more than a cuddly uncle, and I saw much of this kind of analysis spilling out onto Twitter that evening. I saw prominent right-wing journalists commenting that, in fact, Mandela had not been motivated by politics or race, but rather by a conveniently nebulous search for a better humanity. This commentary, as I saw it, sought to downplay the role that the right-wing had played in perpetuating apartheid, much in the way that you might see a certain section of the left-wing downplaying the crimes of Chairman Mao. I was watching history being revised in real time; and, as soon as I woke the next morning, I decided to do something about it.
In a state of barely controlled anger, I wrote a piece entitled “Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel” and then I read it. I was so taken aback by the starkness of what I had written that I actually got up and took a shower, in some sort of attempt to calm myself down. And then I did what I usually do when I am concerned about receiving a negative reaction to an article of mine: which is to behave as if I would do if I were not worried about any response at all. And so I pressed publish.
The thing about Twitter, of course, is that you know very quickly whether or not a post of yours has resonated. It is probably a little like being on the X-Factor, awaiting the decision of the judges. If all goes well, there is euphoria that you have made an intervention that matters, that illuminates a vital aspect of the story. There is also the odd knowledge that, for the briefest moment, you have earned the gratitude or hatred of many thousands of strangers, the equivalent of having one of your hands warmly shaken whilst passing the other one through flame. Most of all, though, there is relief.
The reaction to my Mandela article was overwhelming: and, in another sense, it was no problem at all. I received a torrent of tweets and emails, and they were almost entirely positive. I don’t think that was all down to the quality of the article, though. Recently, I wrote another article for my blog, about the sexual assault of German women in Cologne. On this occasion, my subject was misogyny. Again, most of my replies were positive, but – even though this article, in my view, was much less controversial than the Mandela piece – many of the negative replies were extremely hostile. I am making an educated guess here, but I suspect that it makes people far more angry online when you speak out about misogyny than about racism. I will be honest, and say that there were moments during the next few days, as I saw my work and my name attacked on social media, that I wondered whether it had been worth it. I was reminded then what it must be like online for my female friends who are social and political commentators.
That’s not to say that I have not had racist abuse, or homophobic abuse for that matter (given that, on the spectrum of LGBT, I identify as B). But if I look at the only death threat that I have knowingly received, it came after I posted an article asserting that men who made jokes about violence towards women were either enabling further acts of that nature, or had possibly been violent towards women themselves. Having been on Twitter for over five years, and also being a football writer, I am no stranger to waking up to insults, and am quite good now at deflecting or ignoring them. (For example, I haven’t read a comment under one of my articles since 2010.) But the anger I get whenever I write anything, no matter how mild, in defence of women’s rights is very startling.
These experiences have made me realise the very different consequences faced by different groups of people when they publish their work online. On one occasion, I saw a female friend post an innocuous tweet. I then looked beneath her post to find that someone had sent her a photograph of a woman’s dismembered body, stuffed into an open suitcase. Fury against women is too often the lava that runs just under the surface of social media.
I mention this only because, when talking about the difficulty of putting my views into the public domain, I would like it to be known that – in relative terms – I am fortunate. Yes, I am black, and openly LGBT – whatever that means – which does leave me open to a certain amount of abuse. But I am living in Berlin, the most progressive city in one of Western Europe’s most progressive democracies, where I am free to write whatever I like. And on those days when I might face an online onslaught, it truly feels like a safe haven.
If anything, I should feel emboldened by this position – and I absolutely do. Because this is a worrying time for writers and artists who are trying to deal as fearlessly as possible with the pressing issues of our time. In Mexico, in retaliation for their coverage of the drugs war, bloggers have been disembowelled and hung from bridges. The world knows what happened in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. In Taijkistan, journalists are being tortured. In Bangladesh, atheist bloggers and publishers of secular writing have been hacked to death in the street. Last year, Egypt and China imprisoned record numbers of journalists.
Of course, the global opposition to a free media is not new; my great-uncle, Apollo Lawoko, was a producer for Radio Uganda in the 1970s, before being thrown into Idi Amin’s jail for several months. But it does feel like we are in a moment where many hard-won gains are at risk of being lost, or even squandered.
What can be done to embolden journalists, at times such as these? Well, one solution is financial. These last few years have seen the media suffer eye-watering losses, with papers towards the more progressive end of the spectrum being hardest hit. There is no shortage of journalists jumping ship for a more stable career in the PR industry. Having worked in that world for several years, it is a move with which I sympathise. But the danger comes when progressive media platforms are so poorly funded that they cannot consistently produce vital responses to social events. The danger is that in-depth investigative journalism will continue to go without the funds that it needs.
If I have any request on behalf of the next generation of journalists, it is that we try to see their work as an essential public good, and that funders recognise it as such – and it looks as though that might be partly on a non-profit basis. I see no reason why more charitable trusts for journalism cannot be set up, using the many billions of pounds that are currently sitting dormant in large estates.
Having broadened the scope of this talk, I would now like to narrow its focus again – to consider how to write with an open wound, and why I think that it is important to do so. If I look back at my career so far, the articles that have had the greatest positive impact have had one common feature: they have been written with a blend of cold reason and almost volcanic anger. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it is what I call “moral fury” – where I not only feel rage at the perceived injustice, but am able to locate and expose the source of it. I think that this style of writing has worked for me because it conveys a sense of urgency – a sense that I have not merely covered an area of human rights because I find it of passing intellectual interest, but because it needs genuine attention.
People who write with open wounds are often accused of being “bleeding-heart liberals”, as if compassion were a bad thing. As it stands, though, there aren’t nearly enough of us – and maybe our hearts still don’t bleed enough. After all, we are in a time of increasingly horrific and complex conflicts, with the migration of many millions due to climate change to come. So maybe it’s time for some of us to expose those wounds yet further, and write even more.