Twitter has become “a stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous”. So said Stephen Fry as he quit Twitter after being monstered for a joke he made at the BAFTA Awards.
As costume designer Jenny Beavan left the stage Fry, who was hosting the awards, commented: “Only one of the great cinematic costume designers would come to an awards ceremony dressed as a bag lady.” Beavan is a friend of Fry’s and took the jibe in the joshing spirit intended.
But such was the intensity of the Twitter backlash that Fry, after arguing heatedly with his critics, deleted his account.
The episode raises several fascinating questions. First, why was Fry so sensitive to this twitter storm? Why on Earth did he engage in angry exchanges? Ricky Gervais, who has said much worse, wouldn’t give a rats. But the QI host is overly sensitive to this kind of criticism, and has suspended his tweeting in the past in response to reproaches.
Fry is a man of liberal opinions, especially on human rights, and he has used Twitter to good effect. He enjoys a huge and devoted following of four million. In happier times he wrote of them “I love you all”. Yet it seems he has allowed himself to be sucked into a maelstrom of hostility from a subset of them, responding not with mockery (he is a comedian, after all) but with expletive-laden indignation.
Fry is certainly right to identify Twitter as prone to sudden outbursts of self-righteous fury in which a community of users turns like a school of piranhas on an individual accused of some moral infraction, and tears them to virtual shreds. And not just virtual shreds, as the sorry case of Justine Sacco proved.
Does the phenomenon of the Twitter blitzkrieg tell us something about how society has changed – that we have become more vicious, hateful and sanctimonious? Of course, it’s not just Twitter that is prone to this verbal violence but all social media, including the comments sections of websites.
I don’t think the sentiments are new. A segment of the population, and perhaps most of us at times, have always wanted to lash out at those who do or say things that offend. Who hasn’t shouted a profanity at the radio? Michael Luenig tells of how as a young man, while quietly protesting against conscription during the Vietnam War, he was spat on by old people with hatred on their faces.
Now that the traditional gatekeepers, such as the letter editors of newspaper, no longer stand sentry, social media has given some the opportunity to act on their impulses.
Loving to be offended
Yet the causes of moral outrage on Twitter seem to have a distinct character. Unlike Facebook or comments pages, Twitter users are skewed towards those on the liberal-left of politics. (I refer to the political users of Twitter; mostly it is used to follow the inanities of celebrities.) The medium is sometimes used to mobilize activists for good causes, not least by Fry himself in defence of gay rights and Palestinian self-determination (he’s Jewish).
But if Twitter is used by the liberal-left to defend the oppressed it is also, as Fry wrote, the home of those who love “to be offended on behalf of others they do not even know”. Which brings us to the question of political correctness, whose meaning and origins, and the backlash against it, I have discussed here.
We live in times when groups who have historically experienced discrimination are hypersensitive to real or imagined slights and have the means to express their outrage through channels where the usual constraints of careful reflection do not apply.
Some of those who sympathize with these groups enjoy the feeling of self-righteousness that comes with joining in when others pile on. It’s not just on Twitter, of course. Recently, the Ethics Centre in Sydney was bullied out of holding a debate titled “A TransWo/man Can Never Be A Fe/male”. The Ethics Centre has changed the title in an attempt to mollify its critics, but it seems that one is not even allowed to pose such a question as the topic for a debate without including the correct answer to it.
Trans outrage has been matched recently by Vegan outrage with a flood of complaints about the recent, and quite funny, advertisement for lamb featuring Lee Lin Chin, providing a perfect opening for the conservative press to wheel out the “political correctness gone mad” trope, and this time with justification.
While social media has a disinhibiting effect, elsewhere the outrage vented on behalf of certain minorities has a silencing effect, as many thoughtful commentators, including academics, censor themselves because “it’s not worth it”, a phenomenon that seems to have reached crisis point on US campuses. (Thank goodness climate scientists – probably the first group to endure waves of vicious abuse and death threats via the internet – did not censor themselves.)
Perhaps today’s culture of outraged victimhood owes its origins to the evaporation of the New Left’s demand for broad social transformation. The monopoly of neoliberalism as a political ideology has meant the eclipse of all coherent critiques of the social-political system and the subsequent drift into the individualized politics of identity and equal rights.
Rather than being embedded in a broader movement for social change, minority groups have tended to retreat into self-contained clusters defined by their unique identities, or have simply been incorporated into the mainstream, as in the case of feminism and gay rights (pace equal marriage).
And so rather than an on-going and robust debate within the left about the causes and characteristics of oppression and discrimination, it is left to those who have experienced real or imagined oppression and discrimination to police acceptable behaviour, without checks from sympathetic others, leaving us with a society split between a culture of self-censorship on the one hand and unreflective PC outrage on the other.