Monday, 29 July 2013

I think I'm offended by that

Humour is a funny thing. What's one man's roll on the floor, hilarity ensued, stop stop I can't breathe is another's puzzlement and disgust, offence and head shaking. Some people get it, some people don't. Some people like it, others don't. Some humour relies on you having to think about what's being said, the context, the intention, the target, some just needs you to laugh at someone slipping on a banana skin. Point is, it's all subjective, innit?


The reason I raise this is because subjectivity isn’t something that social media does very well. Figuring out the subtext in a tweet isn’t always easy. Sometimes, when the person who's talking isn't standing in front of you but is instead just writing stuff down, you have to think a little harder about things. The usual clues aren’t there: the body language, the tone, the reaction of others. So you need to fill in the blanks yourself. Sometimes you read things which in isolation appear to be terrible, but when read in context aren’t. Sometimes, you have to think about it. 


Context is all, but it counts for about 3/8ths of fuck all on Twitter, where it recently appears to have gone for an extended holiday. If you've managed to navigate your way through the Ninja Cat videos and the Daily Fail Sidebar of Shame to get to this blog then I suspect you're savvy enough to know all about the sexism/rape brouhaha on Twitter over the last few days. Caroline Criado-Perez campaigned successfully for Jane Austen’s picture to be on the face of the new £10 note. A good thing, and Caroline understandably used twitter to express her delight at her success. Then, as often happens, someone said something, someone else said something else, then others said other stuff and by the end of it you had what could comfortably be called a polarisation of opinion; rape threats on one side, feminist indignation on the other, shouts, brickbats, waggling of fingers, apoplexy. There was the odd slightly ineffectual call for freedom of speech, some leftist ‘hang on eine minute, bitte’ attempts to reintroduce some sense, but mostly just lots of shouting and gnashing of teeth.


Much of what was said was distinctly offensive, there’s no getting away from that. It was nasty, and it was unpleasant. And some of it seemed to be more than that; some people seemed to be making proper, bona fide threats, and if so it was illegal and deserving of prosecution, and one chap today has been arrested. That is good. But. There seems to have been a bit of a rush to conflate 'offensive' with 'illegal'. 


Anyone who’s either (a) ever studied Philosophy or (b) watched QI will know about syllogism. For the rest of you, a syllogism isn’t, as you might expect, a stupid sperm, but instead is a logical premise in three parts with a major premise, a minor premise and a conclusion. For example –


Major premise: all lawyers are humans.

Minor premise: all humans die.

Conclusion: yippee, all lawyers will end up at the bottom of the ocean, har har.


Syllogism is good. We like syllogism. Syllogism is logical, and we like logic. But some people, particularly those who in a fit of red-mist offence are in a rush to condemn, can occasionally be guilty of a syllogistic fallacy, or just 'not getting it quite right'. For example:


1. All men are humans.

2. Mary is a human.

3. Therefore, Mary is a man.


And this has what to do with twitter and the great sexism brouhaha? You may well ask. Well, sit back, relax, kick off your high heels, dear, unpin your hair, have a sip of tea and let me explain. A frighteningly large number of tweeters, all otherwise seemingly sensible people, appeared to be saying that:


1. All these tweets are offensive and unpleasant.

2. Some of these tweets contained threats.

3. Therefore all these tweets are bad and should be reported.


If you happen to agree with the premise that ‘being offended’ is the same as ‘fearing for my safety’, then yes, it’s a valid syllogism. Aristotle would be proud. Otherwise, you might in fact feel that we’re straying a little too far towards giving people a right not to be offended, and there is, of course, no such right. You can’t cry foul just because you don’t like something. If someone is actually threatening you then it’s an assault, it’s a crime, and would you believe it, there’s a law against that. But if there’s no threat, if you just happen to be ‘offended’, well… whoopee do. In the words of national treasure Mr Stephen Fry:


“It’s now very common to hear people say ‘I’m rather offended by that’, as if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually no more than a whine. ‘I find that offensive’. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I’m offended by that’, well so fucking what?”


At this point I should say that free debate is a cornerstone of a pluralistic and democratic society, but I’d be stealing the fine words of whoever it is that writes the unfebuckinglievable blog over at, so instead I’ll say simply that there is nothing – nothing – that stifles discussion and debate more effectively than people taking offence. So please, don’t.


Lest I should be accused of somehow condoning something I don’t wish to (and it pains me no end to actually have to spell this out, as if it weren’t obvious already), I’d like to make two things completely clear:


1. actually threatening to rape someone is horrible, nasty, and criminal. If you do it then you can and should be arrested and prosecuted. A large number of the tweets sent to Caroline Criado-Perez must have been unpleasant in the extreme to receive and I confess it’s hard to see how they can have been intended to achieve anything other than intimidation. Frankly, if you actually threaten any sort of violence then you should be arrested and prosecuted. Any violence against anyone should be stamped on, and I say that without a hint of irony; and


2. sexism should be educated out of society. Any prejudice is wrong and, frankly, pointless, but it’s a huge issue and it needs more than the waggling of society’s finger at the odd mindless thug. The way toys are marketed to children, the way childhood is stereotyped, the way the media use sex to sell seemingly everything, the way journalists harp on incessantly about the female figure, all these are things that need to change, and it’s a slow and difficult process. We’re all guilty to some extent.

If you happen to have any views on what I’ve just said, positive, negative or just ‘meh’ then please comment. Tell me. Let’s talk about it. I’m always willing to be proved wrong, to be convinced of the opposite view, to have my horizons broadened.


If you’re just offended, well... whoopee do.