Thomas Rowlandson, The Branded Bully, or the Ass Stripp’d of the Lion’s Skin, 1786
There used to be, too, a difference between the things people said — remarks intended to vanish on the air — and the things they wrote and published, which were generally more considered: physically laborious to produce, and passed through selected gatekeepers in order to reach a mass audience.
And then came Twitter, the most powerful modern illustration of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that the medium is the message. Here, the flow of news is continuous, unregulated and fierily interactive. The instant, throwaway nature of conversation has been imported into a published, preservable medium. Spats that arise on Twitter now regularly flow back into the “old media” of print; and then — with the ease of retweets and replies — it has technically enabled the rapid amplification of praise or abuse, the latter resulting in the “pile-on”.
As with the emotional contagion that sweeps through a physical mob, the particular structure of Twitter encourages users to behave in ways which would have been contrary to their “public self” five or ten years earlier — although it may, sometimes worryingly, have unleashed the private self to speak more freely. Those who join in often sport the blue ticks denoting a verified account, and it’s clear that they don’t think of themselves as bullies, but as the righteous enforcers of a fluid but tangible moral order.
British speech was once heavily associated with understatement, which itself was tied to civic virtue. The most inconceivable pressures and agonising wartime losses, for example, were often described in stoically minimal terms such as “a spot of bother” or “a bit sticky”. Quite the opposite mode of speech, however, has spread throughout social media: the language of wild overstatement. It frequently employs adjectives once applicable to the extreme depths of human behaviour – “vile” “disgusting” “horrific” – to perceived minor transgressions of some fast-moving social code. This fury is often triggered by nuance, while leaving major, real-world offences untouched.
Politics is a drug, and the most successful drugs provide an instant hit. But they are also the most dangerous, and the downsides soon started to assert themselves.
Soon many started using the site in a game of competitive grievance, or competitive sanctimony. They took obvious glee in targeting victims who had transgressed some moral code; the obvious righteousness of these online crusaders meant they rarely recognised themselves as the aggressors or bullies.
The ultimate proof of the bad faith of those who relish taking part in cancellations is that most of them wouldn’t be half so enthusiastic if they weren’t scared of it happening to them. Everyone knows it hurts. That’s exactly why they do it. To fail to participate would mean not only to risk losing admiration from those around you, but possibly to become a target yourself. And nobody wants to find themselves in the Pit of Despair. Nobody wants to feel like a non-human, even if the price of fitting in is doing something fundamentally inhumane to someone else.
I do think there is a failure — an understandable failure, a failure born of a desire not to offend or stigmatise, but a failure nonetheless — to address the reality of how mental health issues interact with our online discourse. Online, it’s easy to find causes to join, to give you identity; it’s easy to find people who’ll cheer you on, even if whatever they’re cheering you on to do is self-destructive, or damaging to others — calling for people to “pick up machetes” to attack women, for instance, even if it is a metaphor.