The internet has a way of turning minor displeasure into major tantrums. And the best response is to laugh at ourselves…
Britain has anger issues. Would anybody take issue with that statement? Of course they would, with shouting. That’s precisely my point.
There are plenty of things to be legitimately angry about in this country. Proportionate, justifiable anger (the kind you or I might feel about racism, poverty or people wearing flipflops in city centres) is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the pitch of public discourse, which seems to be under the control of Spinal Tap‘s Nigel Tufnel – turned up to 11.
Everything makes Britons angry. This idea was crystallised for me a few weeks ago, when two things happened on the same day. First, MP Michael Fabricant (who turns out to be a real man and not a brilliantly executed Harry Enfield long gag, as I’d been assuming) got himself into hot Twitter with his remarks about wanting to punch journalist Yasmon Alibhai-Brown. Word of his comments spread and my Twitter feed became engorged with opprobrium. As usual when Twitter is experiencing heavy weather, I closed the app.
I checked my email. No rage there, right? Wrong. Change.org was running a petition against gender-stereotyped notices above toddlers’ shoes. The petitioner was “horrified” that girls’ shoes were described as stylish and boys’ shoes as strong. As someone similarly sensitive to vocabulary I found “horrified” a strange adjective. Irked, annoyed, exasperated, vexed, irritated, disappointed, displeased… yes. But horrified? How strange to be here, in a world where the description of shoes for tiny children (who can’t read) elicits horror; one where imagined conversations between people who have no plans to meet provokes an elected member of parliament to muse publicly upon his violent fantasies.
Sexist advertising sucks. MPs should not tweet their most brutal reveries, even for LOLZ (though I do feel some guilty sympathy for Fabricant, as when I imagine meeting him I invariably end up trimming his hair off, which is only different to throat punching by degrees). But how did we get here? To a place where a range of subtler feelings has been exchanged for one-size-fits-all fury? Something about conducting our cultural conversation online – as we absolutely should – has compromised it. There is, the online saying goes, “no tone on the internet”. It’s a reminder that people might not be able to tell when you’re joking, but perhaps it illustrates how we lose other nuances, too. Online we amplify small grievances to make them understood, and it is damaging. As the author Michael Chabon puts it: “Outrage was a moral position… it has become a way of life.” Anger is the ugly wallpaper of our age: simultaneously unbearable and weirdly easy to get used to.
This is bad for us because the adrenalin outrage produces is addictive. We join in, observing online monsterings with schadenfreude, hate-watching Towie, turning the wheel to ensure we are provided with more of the same. Is 11 really enough? Maybe the amp could go one louder… Of course anger is also reactive, not constructive. It is about a problem rather than a solution (as evidenced by the endless, pointless TV slug-outs that are as unappealing to most of us as they are to Mr Fabricant) (as evidenced by the endless, pointless TV slug-outs that are as unappealing to most of us as they are to Mr Fabricant).
As always in Britain the answer to this problem is to approach it with humour. I suggest a concentrated effort to lampoon, ironise, subvert, mock and otherwise puncture faux outrage wherever we find it. To identify wolf-criers so that when genuine, necessary or dangerous anger comes along we are well placed to identify it and respond. We must turn our emotional volume down. Otherwise we’ll become a nation of Malcolm Tuckers, screaming about everything and nothing (only not unbelievably sexy. Peter Capaldi, if you’re reading this CALL ME). Go forth and fight ire with satire.