Monday, March 28, 2011

On Marching, and on Talking about Marching

How to know the truth about the demonstration in London the other day? There were people who marched peacefully, some with sensible banners, some not; some of them were there for ideological reasons, others because they expected to be affected personally by the ‘cuts’; others were there to attack people and smash things, because it’s fun. They advertised their type and their intentions by hiding their faces and looking thuggish.

All news media have a number of ends which conflict with the search for truth. They instinctively look for some kind of narrative, something they can use to catch the attention of the reader/viewer. There has to be a complete story, and also it must fit into some other popular narrative of the moment. Then there is the ideology of the reporter or of the organization they work for. There is always an ideology lurking somewhere, a point of view they want to find confirmed by what they are seeing.

Another thing they instinctively try to do is define types, to keep the story comprehensible. This means labelling. Hence the term 'anarchists' is applied to a bunch of thugs who were clearly there for the fun of smashing things up, the sort of thugs who are always attracted by these protests. I very much doubt they knew the first thing about the government’s economic policy, or what anarchy is, or had any thought of achieving anything except a release of adrenalin and the expression of their generalized hatred.

As to what the rest thought they could achieve, or why they were there, well, that’s why the story is hard to tell. They all had a slightly, or widely different understanding of what they were opposing and why, and how much influence they could really have on things. Most of them were not aware of the exact state of their own ideas on these matters, let alone that of the whole group. They were only interconnected in any way in very tiny groups, there was no great number of like-thinking people. The marchers themselves wanted to believe it, hence the uniformity of banners and slogans.

There probably was no complete, coherent story on Saturday, and certainly one that could be told. There rarely, if ever, is. There were thousands of stories, many part of and contributing to the greater story, though not all in any meaningful way. Each photograph, each interview, each description, tells a single, tiny story, which may not even be true itself, as the search for completeness and justification exists in the telling of the little stories as well as the big ones. And then we are told, or it is suggested, or we are left to imagine, that that tiny story is not only true in itself, but is in fact the big story, the ‘what the march was all about’ story. And, of course, it isn’t.

It is possible to imagine that there is a truth behind the march (or anything else for that matter) but even if there is, no one is able to tell it, and I very much doubt that anyone is trying to.

The organization of events of all kinds has changed. It's easier than it has ever been to organise sales, parties, picnics, protests, riots, even revolutions, as we are seeing now in the Arab world. It's easy to change things on the fly, to keep the information moving where it needs to be, and to keep the momentum of idess and objectives flowing. Mobile phones, text messages, twitter and all the rest of it has changed the world. The rioters are more dangerous and desctructive, and I wonder if the marches are not more pointless than ever.

Note: this post is not about the march, or even about the media. It’s about truth and the limits of perception. I wasn’t at the march, or within a thousand miles of it. I haven’t read all that much, and I haven’t watched any videos. I condemn the violence of the thugs, naturally, and would probably disagree with the stated motives of the organizers, if I looked closely enough at what they were. But I’m not a UK taxpayer, so I will not be directly affected.

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