Saturday 24 August 2019

If I had set out to deliberately offend the Scousers, I would have gone a lot further

Rather than enjoying a golden age of free expression, we now live in a hysterical, censorious culture where the mob lies in wait for a slip of the tongue or an opinion they don’t like
Rather than enjoying a golden age of free expression, we now live in a hysterical, censorious culture where the mob lies in wait for a slip of the tongue or an opinion they don’t like
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

There's something both striking and depressing about the way people have adapted to the internet and social media.

None of us is ever more than a click of the mouse from every piece of philosophy ever written, every political idea that ever gained traction, every movie ever made and every book ever written. In short, we have, at the end of our fingertips, an information resource that was the stuff of Utopian science fiction only 20 years ago.

What a pity we have taken perhaps the most important technological tool ever created and decided to use it to mainly share pictures of kittens and form electronic lynch mobs who dribble with righteous and incoherent fury whenever they are exposed to something they don't like.

We like to think we're so much more enlightened and progressive than our parents' generation, and while there's no doubt that we live in a more liberal society than before, we shouldn't confuse that liberalism with tolerance.

Instead, rather than enjoying a golden age of free expression, we now live in a hysterical, censorious culture where the mob lies in wait for a slip of the tongue or an opinion they don't like.

As someone who frequently writes about the dangers of collectivised censorship, it was perhaps inevitable that I'd be dragged into one of these fatuous micro scandals, and the last few days have provided a depressing, infuriating but occasionally extremely funny insight into the hive mind.

While discussing the mawkish dumbing down of society on Shane Coleman's show on Newstalk on Sunday, I made reference to the fact that it's now a rarity to see a football match start without a minute's silence for something.

Then, heresy of heresies, I referred back to the old joke about Liverpool including a permanent black armband on their official shirts.

A minor, throwaway remark used to illustrate a point then became a case of me apparently declaring war on Liverpudlians when it was anything but - trust me, if I had set out to deliberately offend Scousers, I would have gone a lot further.

Proving, I suppose, that Newstalk evidently has a larger audience in Liverpool than previously suspected, the abuse came thick and fast (with the emphasis on the former) and that is perfectly fine by me - everyone has a right to express an idea, even if that idea is a simple "Hopefully he gets hit by a bus in front of his family".

Abuse is par for the course on Twitter and Facebook, and if you don't like it, either quit your account or block the people annoying you.

But things take a sinister edge when people decide that it's not enough for them to be offended, they also want the offender to be sacked or boycotted.

For example, an English lawyer, Clive O'Connell, was let go for making derogatory comments about Liverpool the other day. Rather than thinking that was a rather Draconian response to an off-colour remark, the mob exulted in his dismissal and waxed lyrical about all the other bad things that could happen to him.

Here's the important bit - normal people don't behave in that way.

I've always said that individuals are smart, but the more people you add into the mix, the dumber the dynamic becomes and so you see people who would normally shrug their shoulders at some perceived slight become avenging angels of fury and disproportionate anger.

Liverpool fans have a widely established reputation for being a humourless lot (while at the same time saying they've the best sense of humour of any group of fans), but this was just the latest drizzle of stupidity in what has become a downpour.

It's no longer enough, it seems, to disagree with someone. You now have to completely shut them down. It's a sort of intellectual blitzkrieg, which means even the most innocent remark is now seen as "hate speech" and so must be obliterated before it gets a chance to gain traction.

Most western countries have a system of political checks and balances to protect people from the tyranny of the government. But what we now have is the tyranny of the people as these unelected, self-selected commissars stalk the land, deciding what everybody else can see, hear or say.

Invariably, this is done in the name of the suffocating, intolerant brand of dumb illiberalism that currently holds sway in society.

This is what happens when the stupid inherit the Earth and there's no doubt that, as a culture, we're becoming more idiotic and irrational with each passing controversy.

Whether it's the current battle for free speech in increasingly demented American campuses - a phenomenon increasingly mirrored in Irish colleges - or the irony of young feminists banning Germaine Greer because she is not enough of a feminist for them, we don't need to worry about political tyrants when the general population can do that job perfectly well on their own, thank you very much.

The problem with such selective outrage is that when something worthy of that response comes along, people are then incapable of properly expressing themselves.

After all, if a throwaway line by a person they have never heard of, made on a radio station that they never listen to in another country, can provoke such a manic, hysterical, collective fit of the vapours, how do they cope with real trauma?

Perspective is a dirty word to the outragerati because the mob doesn't like nuance and prefers instead to deal in competitive fury, which is why the first squawks of indignation about my remark on Sunday were soon supplanted by demands that I apologise or be sacked. That, in turn, was soon overtaken by the apparently heartfelt, and grimly amusing, wish that I be run over by a bus.

Oddly enough, in one of the two 'Liverpool Echo' pieces about the kerfuffle, some Liverpudlians actually agreed with the old joke, with one woman writing that "I think having a permanent reminder on your arm is a good idea as long as it's tactful" while another reader said: "We could use it against him and make it respectful."

As the old saying goes, you couldn't make it up.

Irish Independent

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