Who you calling an asshole?

Things are getting rough on the interweb. The problem is, opinions are morphing into threats are morphing into actions such that people, such as Dan Hodges, in this rather disturbing but, I must say, refreshingly honest piece, are becoming afraid to post opinions or, what is worse, hold to their convictions for fear of retaliation. Dan begins his piece, naturally surrounding the Charlie Hebdo massacre, with these words:

Just before I started this piece I was about to tweet the picture of the cartoon of the prophet Muhammad published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. I was going to do it “in solidarity”. And then I stopped. I stopped because I was scared.

A journalist is scared of promulgating a cartoon because he fears retribution. The problem with twitter, of course, is that it’s ripe for foolishness. Another journo tweeted this piece with the words ‘That @DPJHodges piece makes me feel a bit sick tbh. Stupid & dangerous, à mon avis.’ The problem is there’s no indication of why. Does she feel sick because she recognises this fear? Because she feels it herself? That would be reasonable. But then it becomes ‘stupid & dangerous’. What? The piece? The reaction? The honesty? This is quite important. Ah, but this is twitter. The conversation continues out of one’s immediate line-of-sight, and the logic came out:

What was the bit that made you feel sick?

All of it, Dan. Respect u as a journalist but disagreed w/this entirely. I get that easy to bang on about free speech in abstract / & then smthng like this happens & brings it truly home, & asks Qs of is it worth it. But I don’t want to live in a world where / a newspaper or magazine can’t print what it wants in fear of murder. Freedom of press so important, don’t agree w capitulation.

Now this is perfectly logical, and right. We’ll ignore the fact that Dan was actually talking about deleting a tweet with a Charlie Hebdo cartoon in it, not publishing it in the paper, because the principle is the same. Or is it? Is there perhaps a difference between saying something yourself and arguing for the right of a media outlet to say it? Is it right to criticise someone for admitting that they are scared to do something without doing it oneself? Is this a tacit demonstration of the fact that the journalist and the man/woman do not always see eye-to-eye? Or are we witnessing a prescriptive take on free speech – we have it so you must post this (the cartoon) / must not post this (your own view). Now there’s ironic, as they say. Here’s an alternative take from Tom Holland‘s own eloquent pen, and Will Self and Martin Rowson on the same subject. Certainly, however, there is a problem with fear, and it seems to be prevalent in other situations.

Take the Ched Evans case. It’s a thorny mix of ethics and rights. Of punishment and rehabilitation. Of apologies and insistence of innocence. I’m not that interested in discussing the case (not least as Marina Hyde has done such a good job already) other than with regards the points salient to this argument, primarily that the hounding of the victim via the internet is, quite plainly, not only odious but also unlawful. Why nothing is being done about it beats me. But there’s more shocking behaviour to report, at least according to the Mirror, which reports that Evans’ imminent signing was called off after a board member was told his daughter would ‘be raped’ if the club went ahead with the deal. It pulled out.

There are several reasons why sponsor pressure on the club not to sign him is somewhat unreasonable, and several why it makes perfect sense, but to voice one’s objection to a convicted rapist being employed at a club by threatening to carry out his crime once more is simply astonishing. It suggests a total disconnect between word and deed, and if it not this, then a simply chilling lack of any concept of ethical behaviour. Might is right, apparently. But it’s increasingly the culture of the internet, and especially of twitter, where one’s last comment is the one your followers see, so having the last word is easy. This makes replying to criticism with abuse, saying something you’d never say in a pub, similarly simple.

Yesterday, I wrote a blog which was critical, yes, but offensive? Not really. And yet it occasioned the criticised person tweeting that ‘seems to me that blog is in the interest of being a prick’. Deeply wounding, considered critique, I’m sure you’ll agree. It was followed up with ‘just a tired slagging off re a uni I didn’t go to, + million other wrong assumptions’. Again, neither particularly accurate, nor particularly considered. But the internet is not the place for considered critique, it’s true. The problem is that the author felt perfectly happy calling me a prick, responding to critique with insults.

Ironic that she replied to a critical email written by a raging homophobe seemingly out of the bowels of the BNP with wit and humour. Perhaps I ought to have been more offensive …

This may seem all sour grapey, but actually, the point is quite serious. I have no problem with her having the right to call me a prick (though, frankly, it would help if I were actually being one), it’s the alacrity with which such insults are bandied about that is the problem. See also the editor of the New York Times responding to criticism for his decision not to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that his critic, a Professor of Journalism at USC, ‘an asshole.’ Now, he may be right (I have no idea what the original comment was, as interestingly, the Guardian only published Dean Baquet’s response to Marc Cooper’s ‘calling the decision not to publish cartoons “absolute cowardice”‘ at length, just like I only published the rude bit of Basquet’s response. Selective journalism? you betcha), but it’s not exactly considered debate. It’s this same alacrity (though obviously extrapolated to the nth degree) which allows people to think it’s ok to threaten the board members of a football club that you’ll rape their daughter (a threat which also says a lot about the threatener’s attitude to women).

Twitter is not the space for reasoned debate. But I have no choice but to write this, even if it does result in my being maligned once more.

More importantly, however, I have to write this. I wanted to shout it out in Tesco’s this morning, but didn’t have the bottle. At least I can write it now.

Je suis Charlie.

5 thoughts on “Who you calling an asshole?

  1. Well, call me old-fashioned, but freedom of speech has morphed into the kind of trolling that, safe behind our phones and key-boards, many of us indulge in on a regular basis. That’s one thing, among many, that makes me feel sick, and is partly responsible for turning the world into the nasty place I observed it was in my last response, (approximately 2 minutes before the first reports of the Paris massacres started filtering through.)

    I can’t find Dan Hodges piece, but you’re right, if he’s a bigot and Islamaphobe, his reluctance to publish the cartoons is craven. What enrages me though is the monstrous lie being perpetrated by the literati, that you can, and should, publish material offensive to all Muslims, without being Islamaphobic. David Aaronovitch more or less blamed his fellow journalists’ cowardice for the atrocities. (Which begs the question of whether he himself cravenly failed to publish them.)

    Being offensive is not a display of courage, unless it serves a greater purpose. We need to mercilessly root out the psychopaths, while extending our respect to moderate Muslims, otherwise they will simply align themselves with the psycho’s.

    • Oh, I don’t think I called Dan Hodges either a bigot or craven, did I? I was trying to differentiate between his personal and professional lives, which is how I took his piece (linking to in the blog). I think it is possible to print offensive material without being offensive, but it takes a whole heap of contextualising. Certainly, free speech means you don’t have to do anything. The point behind publication is, surely, to serve a greater purpose … and there’s the rub.
      Ans as for your point about the world turning into a nasty place, it is as you suggest largely down to the ability to hide behind keyboards and tap out invective. Can you get a 2 for 1 on that moon visa?

  2. No, the point I was making was that IF Hodges is a bigot and Islamophobe, then he could be thought to be a coward for not re-publishing the cartoons. What I object to is accusations of cowardice being levelled at people who do not publish the cartoons, out of a perfectly reasonable wish not to offend all Muslims. Sorry that peculiar girl called you a “prick,” and you’re quite right to see that as an example of casual nastiness towards people who don’t share their views. x

    • Ah, I getcha, and yes, in that case I agree whole-heartedly. And yes, you’re right about accusations of cowardice and casual nastiness … which makes the NYT spat all the more confusing! And yes, peculiar girl with a rather over-inflated sense of her own importance, sadly fanned by an army of sycophants … plus ca change, Merlin, plus ca change.

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