Cries of ‘cancel culture’ from loud-mouthed celebrities who have more outlets than ever for their opinions might be misplaced, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something going on. Quick judgements and condemnation on social media mean the thoughtful, the people who don’t want to be misconstrued and would hate to think they’d genuinely upset anyone, say nothing rather than risk public flaming. What’s that one about evil triumphing when good men do (or say) nothing?
Writers know the importance of rewriting, but even writers don’t spend weeks crafting a tweet or rehearsing a TikTok video. They’re produced quickly, on the move or while half-distracted by something else, and often as an immediate reaction. Yes, there are some people (including some well-known writers) who know exactly what they’re saying, and they really mean it, and it’s not pleasant. But there are plenty who have reacted in good faith to something they’ve misunderstood, or changed their minds about later after reflecting or learning more about it. There’re the hot-headed responses to something that caught a person at a bad time, which they may well apologise for later on. And there’s the stuff that doesn’t quite mean what you meant it to mean. All of us use clumsy wording sometimes, from the unintended double entendre to saying ‘drat, the bulb’s died’ in front of a bereaved friend. Among friends, colleagues, or anyone with empathy who’s willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, it gets laughed off, hugged away, or reworded in a second attempt a moment later. The trouble with social media is, you’re not always in a comparable situation.
It’s sometimes said that there are always people waiting to be offended. While there are the odd few that take everything personally and filter the conversation through the worst possible meanings of the words, there are many more who are looking for scandal and don’t really care what the intention was as long as it causes a stir. Whether gossips or a certain sort of journalist, they pounce on anything that could be used against someone. One of the more innocuous examples of recent weeks is Liz Truss supposedly being greeted by the king with ‘Back again? Dear oh dear.’ Mildly amusing but if you watch the clip it looks an awful lot like he’s just making social noise because he’s not quite sure what’s expected while the cameras are rolling and he can’t start the ‘real’ conversation yet. It was, a BBC correspondent notes, only a couple of hours since he’d last seen her. It all reminds me of primary school where someone might comment that the teacher smells of strawberries today and immediately the troublemaker shoots their hand up, shouting ‘Miss, Miss, she said you smell’.
There are an awful lot of complex issues around and Twitter, even at the increased character limit, isn’t the best place to discuss them. They get oversimplified and mixed together, and the confidently loud tell me that if I think X then I also agree with Y (the implication being that I am therefore a monster). No, there’s more than one reason to think X and some of them might mean you agree with Y, definitely not in my case. The wonderful thing about people is that they’re a mass of contradictions and perfectly capable of holding apparently opposing views at the same time. If it was all so obviously black and white there wouldn’t be so much bickering. No doubt my Twitter followers get a strange sense of my priorities, but I tend not to comment on anything I think would require a few hours’ reflection and an essay to gather my thoughts on, and only weigh in on the simpler issues where I know where I stand and can sum it up in a couple of sentences.
Even keeping out of it doesn’t seem to be an option for everyone at the moment though. People in the public eye (which includes anyone who gets noticed on social media) can’t win. If they say they have nothing to add, haven’t been following the argument, or don’t have a fully-formulated view, both sides see them as the enemy. They failed to condemn the one position and failed to defend the other. Nuance is no longer allowed. You can’t say you disagree with the way someone’s presented an argument and some of their conclusions but you do agree with a kernel of their premise and maybe we should be having a grown-up discussion about it – all that will get out is that you ‘agree with’ them.
I’m pretty left-wing and I think of myself in those terms because I’m interested in politics. Most ordinary people are not, and don’t think much in terms of left and right. They think in terms of the things that bother them and the politicians that promise to listen or to do something about it. Hence the shock of the crumbling of the red wall – it’s not that most of the urban north was committedly left-wing it’s that Labour spoke to their priorities for many years, and then Brexit came along and Labour shied away from talking about the underlying concerns so the voters turned to someone who professed to care. Many on the left forget, or perhaps don’t even believe, that ordinary people who feel silenced, who are told they’re wrong even to question the liberal media view, and that if they think that then they must also think this other awful thing, will eventually turn to the loudmouths who don’t care who they offend because, ‘at least they’re not afraid to talk about it’. And that, I think, should worry us all.
I’ll leave you with this post I wrote at the end of 2016 but never posted, which I’d titled Closed questions, closed minds?
Which camp do you fall in, The Beatles or The Stones? It’s still a question that gets asked, though for a while when I was a teenager the equivalent was the synthetic rivalry between Blur and Oasis. Ironically, given the recent move to add non-binary as a response to gender questions, we seem to be in an increasingly binary mode.
Sweet or savoury? Dogs or cats? Tea or coffee? X Factor or The Voice? In a world of short attention span and Buzzfeed lists it’s as though we only have the capacity for quick decisions, comparisons between two options. Never do we get the idea that it might be acceptable to like both (or indeed neither).
Most families I know who have either a dog or cat have had both at some point. Most people I know who drink tea or coffee will happily drink either, even if they veer more to one than the other. Admittedly my coffee-loving eldest sister is an exception – to my knowledge she has never tasted tea, but she does have an interesting phobia of teabags and I’ve never met anyone else quite like her.
Human beings are complex individuals, still (thankfully) capable of holding contradictory positions and of having nuanced responses to anything from pets to politics. The media presents us with false dichotomies and we react to them. Clinton or Trump, for instance, even when Sanders was still in the running. Until late October from my sheltered position in the UK I had no idea there were more than two parties fielding candidates in the US presidential elections.
We can blame mainstream media for this binary view of the world, where everything is black or white and if you’re not with us you’re against us. Or more often, if you’re not fully opposed to something in an ostentatiously vocal manner, you must be a supporter – witness the ‘terrorist sympathiser’ slurs against certain politicians. We also need to take some responsibility ourselves. Think about our own views and reflect on where the contradictions lie. Consider the shocking possibility that someone could have voted to leave the EU on anticapitalist grounds and is appalled by fellow leave-voters’ racism, and that equally it is possible to be anti-immigration to a racist extent and yet have voted to remain in the EU on economic grounds. At the risk of sounding like Tony Blair, we need to recognise that most of the time there is a third way.
My own answer to The Beatles or The Stones? The Kinks, naturally.
If I’ve made you think, you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville