Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words will never hurt me
– Children’s rhyme
It’s a lie, of course. Words can hurt. And the best writers have always known this.
If you’re honest, when you write criticism, you are writing to hurt. If I give a writer a bad review, I can call into question his imagination, sensitivity, intellect, interpretation of the world – things that are important to the sense of self. You should always play the ball, not the man, but often you find yourself playing the ball to hurt the man. Sometimes, it’s good to craft an insult like Dr Johnson; sometimes there’s nothing more appropriate than to call someone out as a pathetic piece of shit. The best adversarial writers are like Harry Flashman, who ‘had a knack of knowing what hurt, and by a cutting word or look could bring tears to the eyes of people who would have laughed at a blow’.
Some of the best political writing comes from anger and hate and the desire for vengeance. As Aristotle said: ‘Hatred of tyrants is inevitable, and contempt is also a frequent cause of their destruction.’ But anger is a better thing than the resentment and bitterness and giggling disdain that now predominates in online political discourse.
I’m convinced much of this climate comes from envy. Consider the case of Max Gogarty. He wrote a Guardian gap-year blog so lacking in self-awareness that the series was pulled after the comment thread filled with vitriol and ridicule. Gogarty’s writing was about as good as most nineteen year old’s. But the hate piled on the kid seems disproportionate in retrospect. The Observer’s Rafael Behr noted that: ‘Max became the target for hatred of supposed media corruption and hypocrisy. Commenters bemoaned the injustice that people such as Max (ie, not them) get to write for newspapers instead of more deserving people (eg, them).’
Also, look at Johann Hari. Certainly, Hari’s behaviour was bad. It was right for him to fall. But there was a glee and a schandenfreude that told us something. As Martin Amis said: ‘Envy never comes to the ball dressed as Envy. It comes dressed as something else: Asceticism, High Standards, Common Sense’.
We have no idea how many people lead empty and frustrated lives, dominated by the drudgery of family and work. People whose only pleasure and release comes from venting in a comment box. We all laughed at the Dickhead Song, but everyone wants new age fun with a vintage feel. Better than council estates and call centres, no?
Writing in the 1920s, H G Wells provided an insight that still reverberates today:
Going to work is a misery and a tragedy for the great multitude of boys and girls who have to face it. Suddenly they see their lives plainly defined as limited and inferior. It is a humiliation so great that they cannot even express the hidden bitterness of their souls. But it is there. It betrays itself in derision. I do not believe that it would be possible for contemporary economic life to go on were it not for the consolations of derision.
Yet no amount of humiliation can justify or excuse the attacks on today’s women writers. When Helen Lewis-Hasteley wrote about this, her concerns were dismissed by male commenters and pundits, who complained on behalf of the oppressed and emasculated white male. Politics attracts more bullies than the army or the police force. Men get the same levels of abuse, women writers are public figures and it’s all in the game. Professional attention seeker Brendan O’Neill summed it up: ‘If I had a penny for every time I was crudely insulted on the internet, labelled a prick, a toad, a shit, a moron, a wide-eyed member of a crazy communist cult, I’d be relatively well-off. For better or worse, crudeness is part of the internet experience, and if you don’t like it you can always read The Lady instead.’
But male bloggers tend not to get abuse based on their gender or sexuality, let alone social network trawling, fantasies of mutiliation and murder, threats of sexual violence, revealing of personal details in public fora, and the stalking of families and friends. With female writers all these things are thrown into the mix. It is mainly directed at leftwing writers but is something that transcends politics. Britain does not like women with strong opinions, and this is reflected in the composition of our parliaments and the decisions of our courts. The message is clear: if you’re young, and female, keep your head down, and know your place.
Laurie Penny challenges the assumption that ‘a woman must be sexually appealing to be taken seriously as a thinker’. But it seems that it’s always the young and attractive women who are subject to the worst kind of trolling. James Bloodworth, a brilliant young writer, said in an essay on feminism that:
It is often forgotten that hatred towards female sexuality is often directed at the most beautiful women precisely because they have the confidence to dress in a way that unapologetically expresses their sexuality. As one Iranian protester put it in the aftermath of the killing by state security of Neda Agha-Soltan in 2009, ‘they always go for the beautiful ones first’.
That, by the way, is how I account for the popularity of religious fundamentalism on the left. There are a lot of anaemic pseudo-liberal males who wouldn’t mind a society where women do as they are told.
This isn’t a free speech issue. You could close down all newspaper comment facilities without losing anything of value. The presumption of a right to anonymous commentary hacks me off here. I understand why public sector bloggers need secret identities. But what kind of man are you if you’ll insult, hector and abuse a female writer but not stand up and claim your words as your own?
And it’s not completely beyond possibility that a man who fantasises and vocalises about cutting out a woman’s tongue will, at some point, go and cut out a woman’s tongue. Vincent Tabak’s interest in hardcore sadomasochistic pornography was kept out of his trial. (‘Your Honour, my client believes that evidence of his enthusiasm for violent degrading images of assaults on women may prejudice the jury’s decision as to whether he murdered a young woman.’ ‘Hmm, yes, I can see that.’)
I’m not going all Broken Britain on you, but the loss of chivalry, romance and restraint has been a disaster, and the normalisation of casual misogyny has been a crime. What to do? I don’t know. It’s a human nature problem, it’s a masculinity problem and probably insoluble.