ON June 8, 2021, the news magazine programme PM on BBC Radio 4 included an interview with Professor Jonathan Haidt of New York University Stern School of Business Studies, author of The Righteous Mind.

Haidt was asked about the extraordinary escalation of hostility in “debates”, particularly with regard to matters of transsexuality and gender. His first point was that, before considering that specific issue, the broader context should be recognised, that a new way of engaging with others had developed through the 2010s.

What’s familiar now has its own history. Some people now are engaging not in debate at all but responding with practised hostility to others and views different from their own. If debate involves an exchange of ideas, these are not debates. Rather, they are confrontations in which no exchange of ideas or understanding of different points of view is permitted.

This phenomenon, Haidt argued, entered American university campuses in 2014-15. In universities, debate traditionally proceeds by Socratic dialogue – that is, a thesis is proposed, the response comes in some form of antithesis, and ultimately some kind of synthesis is agreed upon.

The basis of this process is a recognition of different points of view. Even if no consensus is reached, the process involves recognition, respect and ultimately an agreement, if only an agreement to differ. The process itself is the engagement and things can be learned from taking part in it.

In the new form of engagement, a thesis is proposed and immediately responded to by an attack (which is a rejection of the idea of a thesis so that the thesis itself is considered an act of hostility). This occurred first in the universities, then through the media, then in the corporate world, then in high schools.

Why has this happened? How did it come about? There is an answer, Haidt said. It’s because of the introduction of the “like” button and the “retweet” button in social media. These were added to Twitter in 2009.

The National: A sign at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco

Social engagement through online technology generates algorithms. At first social media was considered good for democracy but since the introduction of the like and retweet buttons, it’s been spreading anger and polarisation without exchange of ideas. By 2012 Twitter had become “a gigantic outrage machine” which the Russians were using in 2013-14. And it spread.

Social media has changed things. People in all forms of encounter are now encouraged to talk in certain ways. Communication has become an assertion of performance. Social media comment seemed good until 2009, after which the economy of prestige became about attacking others and not engaging with their ideas.

Your statement and position must be supported by your followers, unquestioningly. No discussion. Escalation for support on one side is matched by escalation for opposition on the other. There is no exchange. Hierarchies of power maintain themselves by enforced stasis.

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Is there an antidote? How do we fix this? There are two possible antidotes as regards the technology. One would be to close it down because it’s bad for democracy.

The other would be to rectify it with legal demonstrable identity verification and to measure individual obnoxiousness against the degree of cognitive complexity shown by its users.

But it goes much further than Twitter. Why are political debates normalised as shouting matches in which there is no listening?

Why does this result in increasing apathy among viewers. Is that the history of Question Time? Isn’t the development of apathy itself a political strategy?

That apathy generates the assumption that whatever side you’re on, it’s the only one worthwhile. There is no common ground. And nothing changes so you might as well turn off.

Divide and rule.

How do we oppose this? Let’s go even further back.

The National: Hugh MacDiarmid in his home 1968...(SMG Newspapers Ltd).

In an essay, Scotland: Full Circle in a book entitled Whither Scotland? edited by Duncan Glen (London: Victor Gollancz, 1971), Hugh MacDiarmid (above) wrote this: “The limitation of real argument, and the careful production of apparent controversies, are not technical choices, but real ones.

“Indeed the form of what during this kind of election is called politics needs analysis in much the same way as a literary or dramatic form, which embodies experience in a very particular way, carrying its own values within and beyond the apparent action.”

He was referring to the General Election of June 1970 when most Scots voted Labour and a Conservative government was returned to Westminster. A familiar story. He asks: “Is there, as is frequently alleged, no fundamental difference, no absolute incompatibility, between the Scottish people and the English? The evidence is all to the contrary – and the gulf of difference is widening. A recent writer said it isn’t surprising that so many people who have got used to this society resist deep analysis of its forms. The forms of accepted analysis, and the judgements that go with them, are part of the deep accommodation to an orthodox consciousness.”

Referring to politicians of the day, he went on: “Wilson and Heath and the others are not limiting consciousness, for all the evident calculation of their appearances. On the contrary, they are limited by it, and could not, if they chose, move to real argument without also moving to a kind of political activity which would go so far beyond their accepted roles that not only the techniques but the issues would have changed.”

The work of finding out about others, other ways of thinking, other ways of seeing things, the work of opposing the conventional, accepted and stale, of stirring things to freshness when tranquillity sinks into complacency, is above all the provenance of the arts.

That’s why an education in reading them, listening to them, looking at them, studying and enjoying them, is so essential. That’s why our artists, of all kinds, when they’re doing their job well, are essential. It should be mandatory for anyone in public office to understand this fully. Other than your own individual limited life they’re the only way to open your vision and accommodate engagement that is both pleasure and value – and gain.

The National: Edgar Allan Poe.

One of the big books of my childhood reading, given to me by my grandfather in 1970, was The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (above) in the Modern Library edition of 1938. Poe was a gruesome favourite, partly because of the lurid, half camp-funny, half bizarre-curious Hammer horror film genre versions of some of his stories that would be on late night TV, usually with Vincent Price acting the part of a ridiculously polite and well-mannered murderous maniac. But the writing was something else.

The Imp of the Perverse is a story that turns into an essay, a twisting of genres. It defines one principle of self-destruction to which human nature is perennially lured – you’re standing on the cliff edge, looking out to distance, down to faraway ocean or earth and rocks and sea and the Imp hops on to your shoulder and whispers in your ear: “Jump! Just jump! What would it be like to fly? What would it be like to fall? Try it! Jump!” And we know the temptation and we know we must resist it.

To my mind, it goes along with Bela Bartok’s symphonic operetta, Bluebeard’s Castle. This supplies another principle of a similar kind – we go along with Bluebeard’s new wife and innate curiosity leads us to want her to open the doors, door after door, each of the seven doors, and reveal the secrets behind them, and one after another, she does, revealing ever more horrible facts about her husband’s past, until she gets to the final door – “Don’t do it! Don’t open it!” we all might be silently screaming. But she does, and there are all the corpses of his previous wives. And she’s next in line.

These two instances of art at work demonstrate the limits we must know about, simply to survive. They are parables of permanent truth.

They are complemented by an understanding of the development of the practice of the artist himself or herself, and the turning point in that practice, defined in the 18th century. The poet, the artist, is and has always been a recorder, a witness. The accuracy of his or her observation is a testament of permanence and an account of temporal change.

But in the West, in the 18th century, something happens, changing this forever – the poet, the artist, becomes a rebel, an outcast, Milton’s Satan led the way, and the company grows larger in the early 19th century. It’s an essential component of what we’ve come to call Romanticism. But it’s more complex than any label or category. The poetic principle of the witness, the recorder, the maker of aesthetic distinction, the legitimiser of the dignity of diversity, all socially understood and practised, becomes a principle of rebellion against accepted and established social forms; he or she becomes the resistance against all forms of oppression. Poe and Bartok are both telling us stories about what we need to keep in mind, to guard against our own inclination to self-destruction.

Poe’s short story MS. Found in a Bottle ends with the surviving mariners on a small boat being taken up in the vortex of a whirlpool and sucked down through the turning waters, never to return to the surface. It’s a first-person narrative that ends in its author’s destruction, leaving the reader looking at the blank page after the story’s last sentence.

In another story, A Descent into the Maelstrom, the narrator survives but the imminence of death is present throughout. Both are linked to Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), which comes to a similarly terrifying conclusion.

All are drawing on the idea that the Earth itself is hollow, and its interior space can be reached through a hole at the North Pole. This idea itself has had long resonance and is the central trope in another work by the New Zealand poet Ian Wedde.

The title of his novel Symmes Hole (1986) refers to John Cleves Symmes, who first came up with this crazy notion. It prompted Edgar Rice Burroughs to write one of his Tarzan books set in the interior of the Earth, the inverse orb he names Pellucidar.

All of which is simply to give some context for the opening references I’m making in the poem that follows. The other references are probably clear enough, to Burroughs’s Mars (or, Barsoom) series, to HG Wells, Jules Verne, Claude Debussy, Pierre Boule and the 1968 film version of his novel La planète des singes, to Philip K Dick, Arthur C Clarke, Edwin Morgan, and finally, Ursula Le Guin. William Carlos Williams once said: “You should never explain a poem but it always helps.”

Well, that’s enough help. Here’s the poem. And hopefully you’ll see what I mean:

It was that feeling when I opened the book and read

The first sentence: “The earth, as every schoolboy knows,

Is hollow, and habitable within.” Tarzan at the Earth’s Core,

1930. “No,” I thought, “that isn’t true.” Is it? What is this world

I’m standing on? And then the night sky, Mars, the Moon:

Those miles and miles and miles of old Barsoom,

The never-known before inhabitants of planets, orbits, habitats,

Beyond the farthest star, and lost in time to all but those

The Time Machine was built for. Or sailing through the air

To continents unkent with wily Captain Nemo, or deep beneath

The oceans in the Nautilus, visiting Atlantis and

Cathedrals undersea. How many worlds, what universes

Opened to my open-eyed enquiries? The horror-filled,

With no return available, Poe’s maelstrom, the Planet

Of the Apes; the endlessly surprising, where dispossessed

And those who japed, asked if androids dreamt

Of electric sheep; the science-fuelled and speculative

Studies, where cosmic rings and corridors connected,

Rama found a rendezvous, the Odyssey through space

Found Home out there, and then, returned

To where the word for world is forest.

That final one I’ll name, with thanks, by

Ursula Le Guin: the last small book

My grandfather read, not long before he died,

He smiled, and said, “It’s true.” That happened,

1979. Imagination’s what it takes to get there.

Truth is what you find along the way.