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

Tue, Nov 25, 2014 - Page 9

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.

For the left, the inflammatory accusations are sexism, homophobia and racism — alongside the newer charges of transphobia and “whorephobia.” For the right, it is metropolitan snobbishness, a lack of patriotism, disrespect to the monarchy and denigration of “our boys” in the armed forces.

Any of these subjects can spark an orgy of backlash and counter-backlash, with arguments so convoluted they would leave medieval theologians reeling.

In the last month alone, people have discussed whether a comedian called Dapper Laughs should have had his ITV2 show canceled once everyone realized his career was based entirely on witless sexism. People have wondered whether Sam Pepper, a YouTube star who likes to be filmed grabbing women’s bodies, is simply a misunderstood joker. People have debated whether “pickup artist” Julien Blanc, who recommends seducing women with a “choke opener,” should have been refused a visa to enter the UK. In addition, South Yorkshire police investigating rape threats sent on Twitter to Jessica Ennis-Hill after she warned Sheffield United against re-signing convicted rapist Ched Evans.

It has also been at least two months since Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson said something deliberately crass, so expect another -gate suffix over Christmas.

To move forward, society needs to distinguish more clearly between people saying things with which others disagree, and those who make threats or advocate and incite violence. Blanc falls into the latter camp, and it is right that he should have been refused entry to Britain. Clarkson, on the other hand, is merely the price people have to pay for living in a democracy. A democracy that is bizarrely enthralled by middle-aged men shouting “POWER” as they drive round corners.

His defenders, of course, raise the specter of free speech: equating the right to speak without fear of state retribution with the right to speak without fear of being kicked off the state broadcaster.

In fact, the battle over free speech has become a culture war all of its own. If today’s tech giants can be said to have an ideology, it is the promotion of unfettered free speech. Social media companies trumpet how pro-democracy protesters use their networks to oppose repressive governments. Celebrities are warned of the “Streisand effect” of trying to suppress unflattering information about them, and creating more publicity in the process. Twitter’s former general counsel once described the company as “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”

However, amid this orgy of self-congratulation, there is one rarely mentioned fact: one person’s free speech can come at the cost of another’s. This is the kernel at the heart of so many harassment cases: the stalker would insist, with an air of honest bafflement, that they are simply exercising their right to free speech. Unfortunately, they are doing it by shouting through the letterbox of their victim, who is now too afraid to leave their house.

There is no neutral position here. In trolling cases, for example, by protecting the abuser, the abused are being discouraged from entering public debates. The effect of this is profoundly conservative, because the cost of speaking out becomes higher for women — who receive a disproportionate amount of the most serious abuse, according to research by the Pew Institute and others — and other visible minorities.

This aspect of the free speech debate is often ignored. Consider the backlash to Twitter linking up with a voluntary organization Women, Action and The Media (WAM), which plans to investigate and track sexist abuse on the social network. WAM’s power is extremely limited: it in effect has a hotline to Twitter, to escalate complaints that it has verified; it also plans to compile statistics on how well the service is handling them. The power to suspend and ban users still rests with Twitter.

This was not enough to stop influential US blogger Andrew Sullivan choking on his morning latte.

“Is it simply that WAM believes that women cannot possibly handle the rough-and-tumble of uninhibited online speech?” he said. “I suspect the culture wars online just got a little more frayed, because Twitter has empowered leftist feminists to have a censorship field day.”

It has not, of course. Twitter has empowered feminists to monitor whether its own harassment policies are enforced — and to see whether the “uninhibited online speech” of one group is preventing the uninhibited online speech of another. However, this is the essence of a culture war skirmish: the two opposing positions must be irreconcilable, and if one side triumphs, the fight merely moves on to new terrain.

No one can win the culture wars, and the massacres are set to continue.