I am having a moral dilemma. Well, to be honest, it’s not much of a dilemma. I know I am doing something morally unacceptable. I’m just trying to work out how prepared I am to do something about it.
I do try to be good. Whatever else I might think about myself – that I’m unattractive, stupid, lazy – I would like to think I try to do the right thing. For years, however, I have attempted to convince myself that part of doing the right thing involves getting over-familiar those who do the wrong thing. And thus I’ve sought to justify endless hours spent reading hateful nonsense, both online and in hard copy.
By this I don’t mean anything that’s actually illegal (I wouldn’t know where to start). What I mean is the material that all good Guardianistas know to be bad and wrong: The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, Glamour, Grazia etc. I read these things knowing that they will annoy and offend me. Perhaps in some sense I want to be annoyed and offended. I tell myself that the anger vivifies me, gives me a sense of righteous purpose. On the whole, though, it doesn’t. If I’m honest it distorts things. It convinces me the world is more terrible than it is and that I am more intelligent and morally aware than I am.
Yesterday I wrote a post on how totally bloody frustrating and manipulative Glamour is. This led, quite reasonably, to comments asking me what I was doing reading it in the first place. What indeed? I could claim it’s a kind of Stockholm Syndrome – and it is, a bit – but that’s not the whole story. After all, Glamour is just the tip of the reading rubbish iceberg.
Five days ago the Guardian featured a piece by Ellie Mae O’Hagan entitled “The best way to get angry with the Daily Mail? Don’t buy it”. O’Hagan is right, of course. I often wonder how much of the advertising revenue that flows to the Mail Online comes, indirectly, from lefties like me logging on for that frisson of moral outrage. I’d worry it’s a pretty high percentage. Still, as you’d expect, the comments that follow O’Hagan’s piece raise objections, with one accusing the author of having “just written a piece denouncing the Mail and listing stories in the Mail that Guardian readers might like to take a quick look at”. I find this unduly harsh – would it be possible to denounce the Mail without referring to what it actually does? – but I can understand the point being made. Why should O’Hagan get to read the Mail on behalf of the rest of us, deciding what’s fit for our consumption? Shouldn’t we all get a go?
There is a peculiar kind of pleasure to be found in looking at stories which are obviously offensive. Your own moral world-view is endorsed by the sheer wrongness of it all; you can score intellectual points by picking apart the arguments of your enemies; best of all, you get to indulge in “bad” feelings – anger, aggression – but for supposedly “good” reasons. Perhaps it’s just me who does this, but I don’t think so. I don’t even think it’s exclusive to people of a left-wing bent. I suspect the same impulse drives those who hang around the Guardian Comment is Free site, waiting for the next vaguely feminist thread upon which to vent their men’s rights spleen (another comment following O’Hagan’s piece claims that “the Daily Mail is basically a right wing version of the Guardian”. I wouldn’t agree – although this makes me wish there was a left-wing version of the Mail, raking in millions due to regular visits from outraged Melanie Phillips fans).
As a very weak defence, I’d say there is sometimes a value in critiquing the Mail and similar publications. After all, how else can they be held to account? Sometimes – for instance with Jan Moir’s response to the death of Stephen Gately, or Rick Dewsbury’s racist response to the Olympic Opening Ceremony – universal outrage does provoke some form of retraction. Nevertheless, these days, far from wearing sackcloth and ashes, Jan Moir is more notorious than ever. I doubt Paul Dacre loses sleep over the intermittent scandals. On the contrary, I bet he loves them.
I can’t promise I’m never going to read the Mail Online again. Or rather, I can, but last time I pledged not to do something in this blog I gave in a couple of weeks later. So I don’t want to claim the glory for committing not to do something before sneaking off to do it anyhow once I suspect everyone’s forgotten. I have, however, removed the Mail app from my phone. And I’m not going to buy rubbish magazines any more (not unless the freebies are really, really ace). I think, after thirty years of glossy-induced self-flagellation, I’m pretty convinced they’re crap (I reserve the right to continue to slag off the covers).
Naturally, if there is a job out there that involves reading the Mail, Glamour et al and being outraged in a way that actually makes a difference, I would be totally up for it. If I could be a superhero, it’d be Rent-a-Rant, destroying all bilious columnists with my righteous fury. Since such a job doesn’t exist, I suppose I’ll have to make do with trying to be good in the real (and more boring) sense of the word. I only wish that, without Samantha Brick as a counterfoil, it wasn’t so bloody difficult.