Outrage about online abuse seems to be the erratically undulating fixation of the media and politicians at the moment. Whether you watch the display of professed outrage and think of cynical opportunism or earnest determination to moderate the social discourse moral indignation about such abuse remains an increasingly prominent feature of the commentariat and news cycle. Which is as it should be, really.
Our political (and social) landscape is a toxic place, abuse is ubiquitous and pretty much everyone who talks about pretty much anything is liable to find themselves on the receiving end of it. There’s no doubting either that as it’s fed into by sexism, racism, anti-semitism and general bigotry the force and prolificness of it ratchets up too. All the way to the point where someone like Jo Cox can be murdered while a hundred others, with minimal attention, put up with daily threats of violence and death, never mind the more routine insults and attacks. With that in mind it’d be nice to think that the voices of outrage which echo out the loudest were, as a rare show of society wide disgust, setting out a universal line in the sand which everyone could acknowledge and accept as one which we don’t want to cross. Unfortunately though there’s not much reason to believe that’s the case.
Instead the issue of abuse seems to be distilled into a commodity almost. Not by the victims, I’ll add that straight off, but by a wider political and media community which, in some cases, seems unable to simply condemn without trying to score some marginal profit or moral kudos off of it all.
Online abuse, online threats of violence and general hostility are societal issues. They effect everyone to one degree or another. There’s no opinion so mundane, no act so bland and innocuous that mentioning them on Twitter won’t result in some form of hostility from one corner or another. If you use Twitter, or any other social media platform, you probably know that already. Insults and threats are made mundane with the prevailing attitude being that you either suck it up or give up. The lazy response to any complaints usually being that ‘it is what it is’, a judgement commonly delivered by the perpetrators themselves. Work through the disparate demographics of social media and you can see the abuse build up too as racism, sexism and bigotry are all met with the same shrugging acceptance by people who usually aren’t in a position to be a victim of any of them.
It’s the ubiquity of this sort of thing that makes the mainstream discussion of abuse seem hollow really. There’s not a trace of doubt that the attacks on people like Diane Abbott and Laura Kuenssberg should be acknowledged and condemned but there’s plenty of doubt to be had about the way it’s done. With the former it’s often half-hearted and laced with sniggering disdain, with the latter it seems almost directly fuelled by political point scoring against a political left which is imagined to be far more coherent than it is. In neither case is it approached as the sort of society wide issue that it is. Some of the loudest voices of complaint seem to infinitely prefer recognisable totems for their outrage to genuine efforts against something which is increasingly universal in it’s effects.
It’s an instinct, I think, which has become inherent to the media and politics these days. Real moral outrage is consistently subjugated to individual narratives. You can see the same happening in the US with almost every declaration Trump makes – like his recent NFL nonsense. What started with a protest against the treatment of black Americans has ended with Il Douche picking more or less personal fights with people he doesn’t like and the mainstream opposition gleefully ‘taking a knee’ against him without any real awareness or interest in what made Colin Kaepernick do it in the first place. With both issues the narratives have increasingly become ones about a small cast of individuals rather than real, society wide problems. Something I’m pretty certain that none of the oft cited, recognisable, victims would want never mind it being of actual use in confronting the issues at hand.
As things stand now, as the mainstream narrative appears to be playing out, this story has a long way to run. By myopically framing arguments about online abuse with individuals who are quite clearly classified in the reporting as members of one ‘side’ or another there’s no room for anything to be solved. The perpetrators get a constant free pass to justify their actions by their objections to the individual. With a shrug of ‘I know it’s not right’ there’s always a ‘but…’ allowed to follow it up. A completely hollow defence, no doubt, but still one which has been allowed to fester into being. And while commentators eagerly lay the blame for the abuse on the faction that they don’t belong too it’s always set up as an adversarial fight – whose bigots are worse, whose death threats merit more column inches, whose Trolls are nastier. A line you can only really push if you yourself are safely out of the groups likely to be effected. Whereas what we really need is a wider acknowledgement and blanket condemnation of the realities of abusive behaviour. Not because it’s reached a recognisable name but because it reaches millions of people, repeatedly, every day. And in all it’s forms, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, homophobic and broadly bigoted it’s a problem for all of us. Not a story we need to be told about any given politician, journalist, celebrity or sportsperson.