The empty man you left behind; it’s a broken heart that dreams… Brokens, Trolls, and Political Dialogue

There’s no good way to write about some subjects.  Some subjects exist only because people are writing about them.  If there weren’t some outrage shitposting, these subjects would never exist. By writing about them, we contribute to their reification when, in truth, they would be better left alone.

And yet, sometimes, they touch on interesting questions by accident and then we end up in this difficult space – the space I’m in now – where there’s something interesting to discuss but we have to get there by way of something that is terrible.  May my ancestors forgive me.

A very loud section of Twitter went ballistic because a journalist made reference to ‘Brokens’.  This loud section of Twitter, needless to say, was people we might ordinarily refer to as Brokens.  For five days, a torrent of abuse was directed at the journalist, at bystanders, and at anybody who dared to refer to people as ‘Broken’.  This Storify will both break your mind and show you the quality of the discourse.

In completely losing the plot, the Brokens revealed something interesting about the Republic of Reason: how do we deal with people who are outside the discourse?

The term ‘Broken’ appears to have a few different accepted meanings.  One interesting etymology is that it’s related to the phrase ‘Broken Records’.  They are the people who endlessly repeat tiny fragments of argument, persistently and unceasingly.  I tend to think of it in terms of Broken People: here are people who are fundamentally incapable of engaging with rational discourse… endlessly repeating tiny fragments of argument, persistently and unceasingly.

The group is almost universally white, and overwhelmingly male.  They have pet topics and they are certain that there is a deliberate and concerted effort by the mainstream to exclude their views.  I receive regular messages from a woman who thinks the media is engaged in a campaign of legitimising violence towards refugees.  Every policy option that is not her own (her own policy option makes zero sense) is, she claims, against international law, or part of a sinister plot, &c., &c., &c.  Most people have already blocked her on Twitter and send her e-mails directly to the trash.

There is no reason to engage with this woman because there is no outcome available that leaves either party better off.  She is never going to listen to alternative points of view, and she’s abusive.  Even people who agree with her basic point still won’t engage with her.

The example shows the kind of person we are discussing.  It’s a person that it no longer matters whether or not they are correct, engaging with them in a serious discussion is just a pointless waste of time.  It’s like talking to a wall.  These people are so broken inside that they refuse to think that there’s a rational alternative to their perspective.

They feel like they are victims of a giant plot to ostracise them or to marginalise their perspectives.  It feeds into the (predominately white male) fantasy that they are rational, clever, insightful people who have gifted perspectives on an issue, but they suffer from invisible oppressors who want to block the truth from being revealed.

Schapelle Corby was framed, they argue.  Have you seen their video?  Have you read the article on a blog by somebody who thinks there was something weird about the official version of events?  Newspaper editors are bombed with e-mails from these people who are desperate to right this injustice to poor old Schapelle Corby.  There’s even a group of these Brokens on Twitter who threaten legal action if you suggest that Corby was probably guilty.

And the James Ashby fiasco.  If you don’t believe… something.  I’m not entirely sure what point they’re arguing about James Ashby but it involves a lot of conspiracies.  And the National Broadband Network!  No greater political issue exists in modern Australia than whether or not the NBN will be rolled out, how it will be rolled out, and whether journalists were prevented from writing politically biased material regarding the policy.

We also have Birther Brokens: people who argue that Tony Abbott is/was ineligible from standing for Parliament because he might have had dual citizenship.  There’s no evidence that he has dual citizenship, but the lack of evidence is suspicious in itself, isn’t it?

And so on and so forth.  The accuracy of the claims is fundamentally irrelevant, it’s the way that they engage with the discourse.  If you disagree with them, you’re unconsciously supporting the oppression of the truth.

In days gone by, these people would remain on the fringes of public debate.  Maybe they’d get a break and somehow stumble into the public space, ‘as whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.’

But we live in an age where we’re looking for audiences to take up our causes.  Take the asylum seeker issue.  I have rather interesting discussions with people who genuinely think that asylum seeker policies in Australia will change if the broader public gets outraged enough.  To push that goal, they spread easy to digest but not terribly factual material about asylum seeker policy.  The accuracy of the material is secondary to the goal of changing the policies.

They are trying to tap the potential of Brokens.  They don’t want to have the public at large engage with a rational, sensible discussion about the policy; they want action.  The way to achieve this is to deny that there are any other options available and that changes can be effected overnight.

I, of course, disagree with the approach.  I want lots of facts and lots of good quality opinions, and then let the electorate balance up the different approaches to get a satisfactory outcome.

In response to my position, people point out that the Brokens are already being politically weaponised on the other (my) end of the political spectrum.  We have actual Nazis rallying the incoherent, whipping them into an unthinking frenzy of racist hatred.  If the far right is going to stir up its version of the Broken, why shouldn’t the far left play the same game?

Which gets me (at last) to my point.  How do we improve the quality of public debate in this space?  When we have large amounts of disengagement with the political processes and political discourses, and a not inconsiderable amount of the electorate composed of people who are irrationally violent towards the discourse (the Brokens of both political tribes), what on Earth do the rest of us do?

Being able to label and exclude the Brokens is important as part of the creation of a quality public forum.  We label and exclude trolls in the same way.  Where trolls don’t want to contribute constructively to public discourse, Brokens are fundamentally incapable of doing so.  We are not better off as a public by including these participants.  What value is there in expending a large amount of effort trying to get the Brokens to a place where they can contribute constructively?  It’s a better use of time to let them play on the fringes of debate rather than let them occupy the mainstream.

But that means that both ‘sides’ of the discourse need to have an unspoken agreement that we’re not going to flip the chessboard and rally the Brokens.  No matter how tempting it is to get the unthinking throng as a rent-a-crowd political force, commitment to a better public discourse means never opening that gate.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

2 thoughts on “The empty man you left behind; it’s a broken heart that dreams… Brokens, Trolls, and Political Dialogue”

  1. So labelling people as “brokens” is done so you can exclude them from the debate.,,so much for democracy…

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