Comment: Jeremy Clarkson and the New British Outrage

Is Twitter just the Daily Mail for left-wingers?

By Ian Dunt

When an off-the-cuff joke from a bland TV presenter triggers mass outrage, press releases from major political parties and consultation on legal action, you know something's gone wrong.

Jeremy Clarkson's insistence that striking public sector workers should be shot in front of their families is the standard extremist humour of people with little imagination or ingenuity.

It barely warrants a comment, let alone a legal response.

The mad racist ravings of fools and brutes used to be put in the same category. No longer. Earlier this week, a video emerged of a racist woman on a tram, her young child on her lap as she issued half-remembered prejudices of right-wing tabloids, with extra swearing and hatred. It was gross and unpleasant, but the response of the British transport police – to track her down and arrest her for racially aggravated public disorder – was gobsmackingly authoritarian.

The new British love for outrage is threatening to turn us into a country of humourless, po-faced robots, spluttering angry denunciations at anyone who expresses an unusual idea or a cruel joke.

The love of outrage for its own sake has long been a feature of the right-wing press, particularly, but not restricted to, the Daily Mail. Its role has been usurped on the left by Twitter. The social media site, used by people across the political spectrum, has periodic bouts of censorious left-wing witch hunts, whether it's on Top Gear or sexist T-shirts, which are just as authoritarian as the bitter unhappiness of 'outraged from Tunbridge Wells'.

Anger can often arise when we hear opposing world views. It's often the very first reaction and I feel it myself, frequently enough. We all do, especially if we have developed a sense of justice around our chosen issues. Civilised people have a duty to push past anger into critique, or perhaps, if we're feeling really optimistic, engagement.

Twitter, for all its cultural problems, has plenty of evidence of that as well. Its character limit makes constructive arguments more concise, while the open nature of discussions allows for contradictory evidence to be readily presented by anyone looking in on the debate.

But engagement is not the general trend. Instead, we are going in the opposite direction. We are losing the ability to hear objectionable views.

The sense of conspiracy is intense. Right and left have become equally obsessed with the BBC, with both sides baffled by how the other can possible see things the other way round when the supposed subjectivity is so patent. Every day, BBC presenters who seem perfectly fair-minded to me are attacked on Twitter for their Tory sympathies. Every day, the right accuses the corporation as an institution (a specific person is rarely mentioned from this political direction) of being irreparably left-wing.

This process has a variety of causes – cultural, legal, political and technological.

Our first mistake was elevating offence to a privileged place in the legal and political life of this country. Labour was the worst culprit, seeking to hand religion the same rights as race in protection from speech. Even though that law failed, the tolerance we show towards faith schools reveals how badly confused we have become, as we tolerate the cocooning of cultures away from criticism and ridicule. Religion, race, sexuality and gender have all been elevated, either legally, institutionally or culturally to an intellectual sterile zone, protected from the intelligent and ignorant alike.

The safety we afford these categories will always be sought by those with no right to them. Israel and its allies in other countries have long tried to use the social pariah status of Holocaust denial to protect the modern state from legitimate criticism. Similarly, coalition ministers in the UK tried to paint opponents as 'deficit deniers', hoping some of that yucky unacceptability would rub off on them.

Many modern laws were purposefully written in sloppy, vague terms quite at odds with the legal tradition of this country. Section 5 of the Public Order Act protects people from "harassment, alarm or distress". The first we already have a law from. The second and third criminalise such a range of behaviour it's hard to know where to start.

It's entirely unsurprising Unison thinks it can launch a legal action against Clarkson given that a kindly, middle-aged public sector worker returning from a strike would have been alarmed and distressed to hear herself talked about in such a way. The law vindicates and encourages this over-the-top response.

In our education system and our current political discourse, we have disconnected ourselves dangerously from the great elders of British society. We're not paying nearly enough attention to John Stuart Mill and other enlightenment thinkers of our past, who are rarely mentioned or cited in debate. What was a foundation stone is becoming a footnote.

All of these developments are based on unique facets of the human character. We like surrounding ourselves with people who agree with us. We've all heard the same tedious drone of consensus from couples in cafes, both putting down their copy of the same newspaper and cementing each other's prejudices for one more day in their long lives.

But the internet, for all its benefits, has made that tendency worse. It has allowed communities of interests to replace those of geography or trade. And that process has led to a constant reaffirmation of people's views in closed groups.

The web has shortened the length of time between hearing about something and commenting on it. This creates a momentum of initial reaction which we haven't seen before but which is dangerously censorious and full of a sense of entitlement. There was something deeply discomforting and Orwellian about the way people online wanted the police to find the racist tram woman.

We need to reaffirm some long-established British values. Traditionalists will tell you that's got something to do with the police and the family. Anyone with any sense of history will find that laughable. It's about patience, broad indifference and perpetual sarcasm. Sounds cold, doesn't it? They're the greatest national characteristics any country could be fortunate enough to possess.

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