I HAD A BLOG for five years. Much as I loved writing it, it could occasionally be hard work; sustaining the perma-rage day after day didn’t always come easily or naturally, as even the casual reader may have noticed when becalmed in the doldrums of one of those long sentences of mine that starts promisingly, meanders aimlessly for a line or two and then peters out into nothingness, rather like this one.
Once I had closed down my blog, I found myself without an online voice, save for the odd comment on websites here and there, or the odd piece of drive-by abuse underneath a George Monbiot column. It was frustrating to be a loudmouth deprived of his megaphone, but that was how I wanted it, and the enforced silence gave me more time to actually read about the things that interested me, rather than simply scouring the morning headlines looking for something to get on my high-horse about.
So I came to Twitter late, rather like America to a world war. Though I still remain to be convinced about it as a medium, in some ways it suits me: not only is 140 characters the perfect length for the sort of fire-and-forget insults I have always favoured, but it gives me a handy excuse for my relentless negativity and utter failure to engage on the issues of principle concerned, or propose any alternatives to the policies I am trashing. That’s the thing about Twitter. It’s the perfect medium for our age; superficial, easily digestible, point and shoot, instantaneous. Here today, gone tomorrow.
There’s another way, though, in which Twitter increasingly holds up a mirror to our times. Recent cases have thrown into sharp relief the unresolved free speech issues that continue to swirl around websites and social networks, and highlighted once again the depressing tendency of our contemporary society to take offence, on others’ behalf, at the most insignificant of slights.
Three cases in the last few months have brought this to the fore. First there was the “Twitter joke trial”, which came to a happy conclusion last week, when Paul Chambers was finally – after years of legal battles, and the loss of his job – acquitted of making a bomb threat for joking online that if Robin Hood Airport was closed one more time due to weather, preventing him from seeing his girlfriend, he’d “blow the place sky-high”. Though the outcome of this trial – on appeal - is deeply reassuring, the fact that it was allowed to cost Mr Chambers so much is deeply unsettling. We can only hope that the next time this happens the authorities will see sense, though I won’t hold my breath.
Then came the Fabrice Muamba case. The Bolton Wanderers midfielder had a heart attack on the pitch during an FA Cup tie against Spurs (his former club) and the game was abandoned as medics raced frantically, and eventually successfully, to save his life. As spectators watched in horror, one braindead fuckstick’s immediate reaction was rather different: “LOL. Fuck Muamba, he’s dead”, chortled Liam Stacey at his keyboard. A wave of Twitter outrage was duly unleashed on the unfortunate twat, which he parried with a range of Wildean responses, some of them racist in nature (“go pick some cotton”, and so on).
So far, so what. If you or I deployed a poor-taste joke in public, we would expect to be pilloried. If we were public figures, then such a joke might end our careers, or at least cause us professional difficulties. But what happened to Liam Stacey was different, and extraordinary. He was arrested and jailed for 56 days (though, needless to say, he was released halfway through the sentence).
Let us step back here and note that it is not illegal to mock a celebrity death; if it were, the estate of Michael Jackson would stand to make billions in damages from, well, everyone on the planet. Nor is it illegal to be a racist, though you might be forgiven for believing that in 2012 it is otherwise. For that matter, Stacey’s abusive comment was precisely equivalent in nature to the countless Facebook groups that exist to plan parties for the day Lady Thatcher dies, sentiments shamelessly repeated by many Twitter users this week in response to a couple of posts on the topic from Louise Mensch MP.
The most recent case concerned a dickbrained simpleton known only by his Twitter handle of “rileyy_69” (I would call him a spastic, but that would probably be illegal) and his tweets to Tom Daley, the British diver whose magnificently buffed torso reminds me of a younger version of myself. After Daley tried and failed to win gold in the pool last week, rileyy_69 - who presumably created his screen name by combining his name, first initial and IQ - sent a tweet which mocked the diver by opining that Daley’s father, who died two years ago, would be ashamed of him. How rileyy_69’s proud father felt about his son’s instant notoriety is not recorded, but unfortunately for him, his tweet was; once again, astonishingly, Plod paid our hero a visit, eventually releasing him on bail with a warning.
Given the vitriol and abuse that flows through the Internet every millisecond of every day, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the police leapt into action only because the target of the abuse was a celebrity: as Frankie Boyle, himself no stranger to abusive humour, rather mordantly put it, 'You can troll Tom Daley's diving partner and nobody'll give a fuck”. (Boyle himself had earlier described Daley as “chiselled from Jonathan King’s imagination”. Maybe King should press charges.)
All this speaks to a culture in which the “right not to be offended” is increasingly seen to be every bit as sacred as your right to whack off to slo-mo replays of Jessica Ennis. Egged on by a pliant, brain-dead media trying to fill the next news millicycle, we are all seemingly walking around with hair-trigger tempers, one misplaced Clarksonism away from perpetual umbrage. We are all Scousers now.
More specifically, we are in a situation where even the most harebrained of insults can lead us into serious trouble. When I blogged, I used quite frequently to concoct appalling fates for my particular hate figures. Patricia Hewitt was fed head-first into the propeller of a DC-3; Polly Toynbee found herself trapped in an elaborately grotesque Clockwork Orange-style torture scenario involving gynaecologists’ stirrups, a montage of Gordon Brown speeches and a nailgun; Charles Clarke was catapulted into a pit full of tarantulas and then covered in shit, or possibly vice versa (the details grow hazy with time).
These fantasies, which said as much about my malevolence as theirs, were no doubt as offensive to their objects as they were amusing to my readers. Would I write the same things now? I don’t know. I fear I might not. No great loss, you might say, to be cleansed of such gutter ephemera; but you would be wrong. A culture in which giving offence can land a mediocre blogger in trouble is also one in which the real geniuses – the Ianuccis and Boyles - can be silenced, and that concerns me, because then we’d all sound like the letters page of the Independent, and where would be the bloody fun in that?
Short version: our social and to an extent our political discourse relies on being able to speak freely about those at the top of our establishment in any terms we choose, even if they are (to some) unacceptably salty in tone. That’s something worth protecting, even if it leads us to defend loathsome fucknuggets like those we’ve discussed in this piece.
Even shorter version: if you don’t want to be offended, then fuck off.