Yes, I read The Times. No, I don’t own a Barbour jacket. But occasionally I like to peer into the minds of those who certainly do, and in such moments, I turn to The Times’ comments pages. Today, dear reader, I invite you along with me, as together we hear the arguments in favour of a man with more money than Qatar. We might even learn something along the way!
My foolhardy trip yielded some interesting results, and patterns quickly presented themselves. Two tribes appeared to have formed. The first are the kinds of people you’re probably more familiar with at university: they’re left leaning, they believe that people like Bezos have an obligation to help the less fortunate, and they are largely ignored. The second, and by far the larger group, can be distinguished by their aggressively correct punctuation and grammar, except for the occasional typo when they get carried away by the transformative wonder of free market economics. These are the kind of people you would perhaps expect to find in a Times comments board.
My initial instinct when writing this piece was to comment on how strangely polite everyone is. But once you spend any amount of time down there you see that the regular (lack of) internet rules apply – they’re just smoothed over with a thin varnish of passive-aggressiveness. I imagine moderation over profanity must be fairly strict, because here phrases like ‘Well, actually’ and ‘I think you’ll find’ are the weapons of choice. One commenter stands head and shoulders above the rest, partly through his sheer persistence, and partly because his profile is (quite aptly) named after one of the largest toilet manufacturers in the UK.
Armitage Shanks likes capitalism, and he expects you to like it too – warts and all. His is a world split into ‘us’ and ‘them’, with the suffering of ‘them’ deemed a necessary consequence of ‘free market capitalism increasing our standard of living’. Those who object that this seems a tad unfair are quickly branded naïve – he points out that Amazon only paying a tax rate of 0.002% on its UK earnings in 2018 isn’t technically illegal, but the fact that it might be immoral seems to escape his notice.
There is a good point hiding somewhere in his deliberate simplification, in that anger should really be directed towards the system that lets Bezos get away with it rather than directly at him. But arguments that he should only give back what he is required to seem to rely on a very mean-spirited view of human nature.
Take Amazon’s attitudes towards the conditions of its workers. One brave soul brought up the well documented treatment of Amazon’s warehouse staff, to which our friend Mr Shanks replies that they should look for another job: he would “expect them to retrain and enter a different market” if they had it so bad. To me, this kind of thinking isn’t possible unless you fundamentally misunderstand the experiences of those workers. The pressures of living with very little financial security, alongside the current state of the job market, mean that for many finding new employment isn’t as easy as Armitage would seem to expect.
I’ve been picking on Armitage specifically, but his comments are far from unique in the Times comments board and elsewhere. I read them because the views I find are different to those I usually encounter at University, and often they challenge me. Hopefully it won’t sound revolutionary when I suggest that it’s good to seek out opinions different to your own, even if some of them end up not being worthy of the attention. I’m glad that everyone, including Times readers, get a platform online – if only because tearing their arguments apart can be fun occasionally.