Tue, Nov 25, 2014 - Page 9 News List

The moronic inferno: Debate in the Internet era

Everyone seems to have strong opinions about everything — and everywhere people want to take offense. One slip — or even a perfectly innocent remark — can mean public vilification

By Helen Lewis  /  The Observer

Illustration: Yusha

These days, if I spend too long on the Internet, I feel like crawling back into the sea and trying to devolve my limbs. We have created an incredible tool for consolidating all human knowledge, connecting us across time and space, and we use it to Photoshop Benedict Cumberbatch’s face on to otters and make politicians resign for tweeting a picture of a house.

Why do online spaces often feel so fractious? It is because unlike our everyday lives, the Internet never demands a rest from the culture wars.

In the 1991 book that popularized that term, sociologist James Davison Hunter recorded a European friend expressing surprise that US citizens “typically conduct their lives in private and with little controversy.”

He said that issues such as the role of religion in public life seemed bloodlessly abstract only until they intersected with people’s everyday lives: Their daughter wanted an abortion, a cousin revealed herself to be gay, or their local school changed its curriculum.

“The contemporary culture war touches virtually all Americans,” Hunter wrote. “Nearly everyone has stories to tell.”

There is one big change since Hunter wrote his book. If everyone has stories to tell, now they have access to an audience, too. Through blogs and social media, they can easily find others who share their rage and express it together, perhaps directly to the person or organization that caused it. On the Internet, you can always find someone who is up for a ruck. The culture wars have been reborn as a 24-hour rolling soap opera where millions of us have a walk-on part — and the unlucky few end up as villain of the week.

We live in a culture obsessed with offense, which is not in itself a bad thing — most of us would agree that we would prefer not to anger or upset other people if we can help it. However, we also swim in a sea of words: Utterances that would once have flickered into life for a moment are now recorded for ever, parsed and picked over.

Social media and the ubiquity of smartphones mean that almost any thought, no matter how small its intended audience, has the potential to go viral. Almost any of us can be dumped in front of the court of public opinion and put on trial for stupidity and thoughtlessness. An argument on a bus ends up on Buzzfeed; the rugby club song makes page nine of the Sun; a celebrity’s gaffe is replayed endlessly on 24-hour news.

Social scientists call this “context collapse” — the idea that everything we say on Facebook or Twitter is potentially addressed to everybody, forever. That for the vast majority of the time, no one outside your mum and your friends is likely to read it makes it all the more disorienting if your musings are wrenched out of their original context and held up for public discussion.

One of the hallmarks of the early culture wars was that both sides were equally alert to minor slights. This is worth remembering today, when political correctness is usually diagnosed as a left-wing complaint — an overdose of right-on trendiness causing spontaneous outbreaks of Winterval and “trigger warnings.”

The right is just as susceptible to hair-trigger outrage, however — witness last week’s brouhaha over what British shadow attorney-general Emily Thornberry did or did not mean to say about working-class people when she tweeted a photograph of a flag-draped house.

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