It will look indulgent for the blog of a minor political podcast to cover the launch of a minor political website, but the birth of Lit earlier this week seemed worth touching on, if only as the latest example of a common breed in what the New Statesman terms our “dark times”.
Lit’s founder Frances Weetman said the site was formed after she became convinced that “the solution to polarisation and apathy is the provision of free information, vetted by experts”. The desire to combat these alleged evils stems from her own experience as a former Labour councillor, hounded online for resigning as a protest against the party’s antisemitism.
Further guidance of the site’s purpose is given in the introduction Weetman posted on the site itself. The complaints are familiar. News is too fast. Tribalism is rife. “Extremists” are being allowed a platform. Social media is distorting democracy. “The result is a politics that is shaped not by the knowledgeable, but by those that shout the loudest,” she says.
Lit is not the first site to form in response to these problems. UnHerd and Tortoise are two others that formed as part of this trend. Journalists have been worried that established newspapers and broadcasters are unable to contain polarisation, scepticism towards expertise, and the entrance of ‘extremists’ into mainstream politics.
Of course, people have a right to form new media ventures, and more competition for eyeballs can hardly be a bad thing for readers. But the pomposity with which some of these ventures have been announced, not to say their expectation they can affect things, is striking.
Most bemusing is the assumption that if only ‘correct’ information is presented in front of people the public will stop being polarised, experts will be respected again, and extremists will run to the hills. The web is already stuffed with fact-checking sites, and yet the alleged problems persist.
Any number of volumes on cognitive biases would illustrate why this has not proved the cure-all that centrists have hoped. Just as a skilled lawyer can martial the facts to absolve their client, politicians, journalists and activists can arrange genuine facts to justify their existing prejudices. This should not be news to anyone now.
There is still a tendency among some political actors – the variously named Change UK, which Weetman was part of, springs to mind – to assume that the turbulence of the past few years is because experts are being wrongfully ignored. Enthrone experts again and all problems will be solved, they think.
Having a process to agree about the nature of reality is clearly important, but even if we all agree on the facts, we aren’t all going to agree on the interpretation of them. This is the essence of politics: people have different priorities, hopes, and values.
This is even assuming there is a neat line between unquestioned expertise and expertise that involves contested judgements. A lot of politics slips into the latter category, hinging much more on slippery social sciences that the relative certainties of harder science.
It would be more intellectually honest to acknowledge we all see the world from a viewpoint and are going to marshal expertise in service of that, rather than pretend it works the other way round. The alternative is a kind of one-party technocracy, devoid of politics. Not only is this impossible, it’s undesirable too.