Firstly, to people making gaffes on social media. There seems to be one of these stories a week. In the last week there have been two: Paris Brown, the 17-year-old “Youth Police Commissioner” in Kent who allegedly made violent, anti-gay and racist comments on Twitter; and Labour MP Chuka Umunna apologised for comments saying West End clubs “are full of trash and C-list wannabes.” It has just been announced that Paris Brown resigned today after only being appointed to the job last week, which is good as it looked as though she and her employer, Ann Barnes, looked to gloss over the comments. I will therefore concentrate my opinion on the comments made by Mr Umunna made on website aSmallWorld in 2006 – which were, in full: “Is it just me or is there a serious lack of cool places to go in Central London at the weekends. Most of the West End haunts seem to be full of trash and C-list wannabes, while other places that should know better opt for the cheesy vibe.” Yes, the use of the word “trash” is crass and reveals a rather imperious attitude, but other than that I think his comments are true, West End clubs are like that! He issued a statement saying “We’ve all said and done things in our younger days that we regret – I’ve never claimed to be a saint and am no different. The choice of language I used in that post was inappropriate and stupid which is why I’ve whole-heartedly apologised.”
There’s always problems with public figures and social media. Someone’s being a dick on Twitter. Someone was a dick on Facebook. People have always said, and always will say, stupid things. In the past, the personal and professional/public spheres were somewhat separate, but social media has blurred them. Before social media, the stupid comment might have flitted off into the ether, perhaps hitting a few unwelcome ears and being challenged but ultimately remaining hard to prove and easy to deny; now they dangle in perpetuity on the web, waiting for someone to take offence.
I find it tedious to feel I should be offended by everything. Disagree? Yes. Shocked? Maybe. But offended? Not so much. I think we are now too quick to take offence to everything. It’s like social media and the internet has reminded everyone just what a lot of arseholes are really out there. But didn’t we know that before?
I imagine our media now a bit like a bloated, pompous, Victorian spinster aunt, swooning and castigating at the merest hint of offence and shouting down everyone with strangled cries of “Offensive! Offensive!” In a way, I feel like this over-readiness to find offence everywhere is a type of trolling, as it immediately shuts down any debate and renders the person speaking stripped of credibility. If we continue to find so much offence, it will stilt debate and lead to stasis. Yes, people should be held accountable if they say abhorrent things, as Paris Brown has been, but if you look for offence, you will always find it. Frankie Boyle was probably conjured from the fretful, Chablis-fuelled nightmares of middle England’s Daily Mail reading housewives. Without them poised in a continual state of “ready to be affronted when we’re told we should be”, men like him would be out of a job.
The crux is, would these people apologise for their comments had they not been pulled up by the media and felt their salary was in jeopardy? No. It’s the reality TV trope permeating into public life. Everyone must always “learn” something, there must always be a “journey”. Real life is not like that. Some people never learn their lesson. Others are taught the same harsh lesson over and over again when they’ve already learnt it. Some people go on a journey and come back even more of a wanker than they were before. The thing is, I quite like that. I like the unpredictability of things, that people say and do outrageous things that others would never dream of doing themselves. It gives us something to talk about. I don’t want to hear another forced apology trotted out by rote with the same platitudes: “I am/was young… I’ve learnt my lesson… I won’t do it again.” I don’t think forced contrition as a concept works. Surely, to find contrition it must be alighted upon by the person whose done wrong, not forced from external outrage. Then it is not true and merely devalues itself. Objectionable people are given the impression that they can say anything and apologise afterwards and it will all be ok. This is not a mature standpoint. For once, I’d like to see a public figure not apologise for something said that was deemed offensive, I’d like to see people stand by their words and convictions a bit more, even if I don’t agree with them. Or maybe, just maybe, see public figures who do not let their mask slip to show latent bigotry or idiocy. That would be nice.