New Zealand Twitter was a pretty toxic place over the weekend. There was a sustained confrontation between a well-known print journalist and a bunch of left-wing online activists. I don’t really know the journalist and I’ve met and liked a bunch of the activists just fine, but my sympathies were with the journalist. And the longer it went on and the more I thought about what was happening the more uncomfortable I felt about it all. Because when a large group of people mock and harass an individual over a sustained period of time it isn’t really a confrontation, or a debate, and it certainly isn’t activism. And when the target got upset, and the activists began to gloat about him unravelling and losing it, and doubled-down on their attacks, it made it pretty clear that what was happening was simple old-fashioned bullying.
‘It isn’t bullying’, the activists would reply. ‘What’s happening is that twitter is a place where marginalised people: trans people, people of colour, the working class, finally have a voice. This journalist – and YOU, Danyl, are straight white middle-class men and you can’t handle the fact that you don’t control the narrative any more. So you’re attempting to silence these marginalised voices by accusing them of bullying and smearing them with names like ‘The Twitterati.’
I’m not indifferent to that argument. I get the idea that my gender and ethnicity give me privilege, and that it can be confronting when this is challenged. But, like I said, I know or know of many of these people and exactly none of them are transexuals or people of colour or working class. They’re heterosexual middle-class white folk and they’ve expropriated the struggle and language of identity politics to give themselves a status of victimhood that they don’t deserve, so they can justify behaviour they’d be horrified by if they saw it in their children.
‘But,’ the activists will probably say next, ‘Women and trans-women and people of colour [etc] are subject to far worse harassment. Why don’t you condemn that and not this?’ Well, (1) I have, and I challenge and/or block people I see engaging in that kind of behavior online, (2) most of the instigators of the Twitterati – or whatever you want to call them are straight white men, so – again – they don’t get to expropriate the persecution of women or other minorities, and (3) the abhorrent behavior of racists or misogynists doesn’t justify progressive activists imitating them.
I’m a massive hypocrite, of course – I’ve been guilty of exactly this type of online bullying, although I like to flatter myself that I’ve never taken part in anything quite this nasty. Maybe that’s the reason I’m offended – it’s a shock to see something ugly and recognise yourself in it. So this was a wake-up for me. I’ve blocked most of the so-called ‘Twitterati’ – they’ve been at this sort of thing for ages, and they’re having too much fun to change just because I write something critical about them. But mostly I’m going to try and change my own behaviour online. No more punching down, or sideways; engage with ideas instead of attacking individuals; don’t participate in pile-ons.
When you’re online its all-too-easy to get wrapped up in the righteousness of your convictions and use it to justify acting like an asshole. And progressives should challenge the narrative, and confront the privileged, like journalists (or me). And they should speak out against things that offend them (although twitter is now in such a constant state of outrage, often about trivial nonsense I feel that this is a very low value form of activism). But if you’re attacking an individual, not their ideas, and you’re doing so en-masse, repeatedly, and they’re clearly distressed about it you’ve left activism way behind, and you’re an ordinary nasty old bully.