Hard Men of Letters
Mary Beard’s insightful (and suitably uncomfortable) lecture on the suppression of the public voice of women is a good starting point for a more general discussion of oppressive language in the digital age. This is no small matter of etiquette. Abuse is not everyone’s cup of tea. While some revel in it, many others are put off from bothering to contribute. This is not just an infringement of their rights but a loss for us all. It allows the oppressive a greater say than other, perhaps more rewarding, commentators.
First then, why might someone tend to lace their postings with aggression and personal abuse? Here’s five possible reasons:
1. The writer is incapable of having his views questioned without becoming enraged.
2. The writer is prone to acts of violence, and given access would physically assault those who dare to disagree with him.
3. The writer is physically a wimp who vents his wimpish frustrations by talking tough from the safe end of an internet connection.
4. The writer has decided that a bullying tone is the standard vernacular for digital discourse.
5. The writer’s arguments don’t stand-up to intellectual scrutiny so he uses a threatening tone to scare-off those who might expose this shameful secret.
For once you'll notice we can dispense with gender neutrality. For all the media’s fascination with savage females, Raoul Moats still outnumber Joanna Dennehys by hundreds, perhaps thousands to one. We can be confident that similar ratios apply when it comes to vicious and threatening writing.
Secondly you’ll notice that as character portraits go, they're none too pretty: 1 needs counselling, 2 is a thug, 3 is a coward, 4 is a conformist poseur and 5 is Alf Garnett. As to motives, we can identify two key areas - the emotional and the strategic - with a certain amount of cross-over. Of the emotional, some suggest a simple lack of self-control, a lashing out, a tantrum. Others crave emotional victory, to make the writer feel better and the victim feel worse. Another emotional drive is the desire to paint a certain image of oneself to other readers, in this case one of toughness and ruthlessness. It's a narcissistic projection of a 'tough guy' image into the world, much like the John Wayne swagger or shaved head and Doc Martin's of yore.
Then we have the political and strategic motives - notably number 5. The hope here is that by roaring like a lion you will frighten-off those who find holes in your arguments or beliefs. We might call this usage ‘rhetoric for meat-heads.’ It functions like rhetoric, in as much as the objective is to change the subject. Of course true rhetoric takes skill - you need to maintain the pretence that you haven't changed the subject - but it's a toss-up which is more despicable. Personally I'd rather be called an ‘effing something-or-other’ than get caught-up in the lawyer-like twisting of an Oliver Kamm. At least when someone bad-mouths you, you can immediately call 'game over'. With rhetoric, irrelevant but plausible sounding distractions are dangled like worms into the pond, and it can be very difficult not to bite.
Of course you don't have to roar on your own. On like-minded websites and message-boards the regulars may be roused into collectively rounding-on a detractor. This works even when the detractor has made a valid point, and the consensus view is at fault. As in the playground, combined snarling can produce an illusion of winning the day, seeing the victim off, belly down. Truth is less relevant when you're backed by a mob.
Still that’s all the obvious stuff. Obscene names and threats to disembowel are easy to condemn, and most professional journalists and commentators distance themselves outright. But there are more subtle ways to harness the power of abuse. While such writers might be more dexterous in avoiding the accusations, the aims are as unclean - probably some mix of those suggested above. They abound in an article about Mary Beard, which she mentioned in her lecture. It was written by Rod Liddle for The Spectator. I was going to call it a particularly mean-spirited article, but looking at his other entries it seems a mean spirit is at the heart of this column.
So, how to abuse with impunity? One way is to distance yourself from the abuse you wish to convey. Rather than throw the mud you can highlight the mud others have thrown. Liddle’s article begins with two quotes, the second of which is an example of the online abuse Beard received after a TV appearance. It seems fair to assume that Liddle cherry-picked this quote because he likes it - he finds it funny. It has the same ring of ‘crass intellectual’ he projects in his own writing (for evidence of the ‘intellectual’ bit look at the first quote.) But by pointing rather than slinging he can have his cake and eat it. He can even play it that he was only quoting it so as to disapprove (tut-tut.) The damage is done either way.
Alternatively, you can put your own abuse into the mouths of others. Liddle suggests that Beard is frequently invited onto TV because “They think she looks like a loony. And the TV companies, the producers, love that.” While we should never doubt the cynicism of TV producers neither should we doubt that this is Liddle’s own sly way to call names. It is his word choice, no one else’s. ‘Her eccentric appearance’ would have conveyed his meaning just as well, if it hadn't been his intention to abuse.
Alternatively, you can make sensible, critical, points but verse them in an unnecessarily harsh manner. Rather than suggest that someone is naïve you can ask ‘Is she really that thick?’ (Liddle, again.) And if all that fails there’s always the ‘satire’ fall-back. You can paint your abuse as a joke: This is a light-hearted column. Have these people no sense of humour?
This all points to an interesting aspect of abuse, one that is easy to forget. In terms of information, abuse is a void. As the IT theorists put it, the content of abuse is redundancy rather than information - at least regarding the subject being discussed. Abuse doesn’t take a discussion any further forward, it’s a means of sidestepping it - rhetoric again.
For example, I might wish to propose that George Osborne's social background impedes his ability to empathise with other social classes. To express this I could refer to him an 'Eton-educated aristocrat who is clueless about the suffering of the poor.' Or I could call him a 'toffee-nosed Bullingdon-boy whose only experience of the working classes was the servants he beat at Eton.' Now, while the latter description might be more colourful and perhaps raise a smirk (though barely, as it's so hackneyed) it takes us nowhere regarding the original proposition. It might serve to garner dislike of Osborne and his class (perhaps one of my ulterior motives) but it adds nothing to the question of whether his social background blurs his view of other social classes.
This is further complicated by the fact that some words qualify as abuse in some contexts, and information in others. Calling Mussolini a fascist isn't abuse. Calling a Southern Water customer-service operator a fascist certainly is - however steep your bill. Calling a UKIP candidate a fascist is probably just abuse. If you harbour the suspicion that UKIP could be the seed of a growing fascist movement, then we could grant it some informational content. But in all likelihood it is just abuse. 'Myopic Little-Englander’ is certainly an abusive description, but in this context it is far more information-rich. Given the welcome absence of Jack-Boots, at least this description gives you and the candidate something meaningful to chew-over on the doorstep.
More confusion arises with the mixing of abuse and information, even in the same sentence. Just for a bit of balance here's a concocted but typical sentence one might read on a left-wing message-board, or comment thread:
“It wasn’t even Marx that said that, it was Hegel - you twat!”
While the part to the left of the dash might well constitute information, that to the right is pure abuse. Rather than substantiate the argument it functions more like a slap round the head, for emphasis. And the parallel is telling. Aggressive talk is often the prelude to aggressive acts. It all depends whether we are dealing with a number 2 (thug) or a number 3 (mouthy wimp.) And we can certainly smell some number 4 here - the conformist poseur. You have to ask, what is someone who knows the difference between Marx and Hegel doing using such a term, at least in public setting? Who or what are they pretending to be?
Comedy can’t steer us round this distinction, either. As with any other form of abuse, the abusive content of satire is void of information relevant to subject - no matter how funny or satisfying it might seem. Politically, satire is a sop. It’s the momentary satisfaction of flicking the V behind the headmaster’s back. It changes nothing in the structure of the school. Steve Bell can continue to draw Tony Blair with grotesquely dissimilar-sized eyes, and Peter Hitchens can continue to refer to him as ‘The Blair Creature’ for another twenty years. It won’t move him an inch closer to The Hague. Only the facts of Blair’s time in office can do that, and we are stuck with a media determined not to inspect them. So enjoy that satire, but don’t kid yourself that it changes anything.
The internet has certainly put a lot more ugly words on public display. Outside journalism, thuggish writing used to be confined to the toilet wall. Nowadays any semi-literate with a cell-phone has a global noticeboard for all their unpleasant recommendations. But let’s not understate the role of the old media in all this. Liddle has the gall to bemoan our fall from grace - ‘the internet has shown us as we really are, which is not terribly nice’ - he whines. This is certainly evidenced by the comments section beneath his column, but can he really be surprised considering the content of his posts? Has it not occurred to him that a mean-spirited column will tend to whip-up a mean-spirited crowd? Is he really that naïve?
So while the increase in abusive writing facilitated by new media is regrettable, let’s not pretend we’re powerless. Abuse builds like a head of steam. We can choose not to add to the pressure. While we cannot coercively control the utterances of others, we can keep our own houses in order:
Thou shalt not resort to mean or threatening language, regardless of how rude or incendiary one might find another person’s writing.
…or some such. This really can have a positive knock-on. Abusers look so much odder and more isolated when no one else will join in. They really are left barking in the dark. It’s not always easy of course. This article took a lot of editing to remain consistent with its own message. When the temptation arises we need to think carefully about our motives. We shouldn’t fool ourselves that this particular insult is necessary to establish a finer point. Abuse can never clarify an argument. It’s always about something else.