A Tweet too far.

I pecked out her tongue but it kept on saying 'Brexit means Brexit'

Before rushing off to London to meet a friend and give out Christmas presents, I had to look at Twitter, which has become an increasing part of my day. There it was: Do you reckon your mum cried when she gave you up, Jane?

I stared at it, shocked, and my mind raced; someone I don’t know had researched my life, discovered that I was adopted, then from her imagination dug out that scene of original separation from my mother, which I have never written about, discussed and try not to think about.

As a child my adoptive parents described the scene when I was handed over and I was upset. I’ve felt guilt about it ever since. When I met my natural mother as an adult, she said she was vague about the moment but said that six months later, the day after the adoption became legal, she collapsed on a bus, realising what she’d done. We were alike and perhaps genetically predisposed to distress on buses. Going up to London last week, I wept. There could be no adequate come-back and who would want to make one. I decided to close my Twitter account. It wasn’t worth wounds like that.

Everyone knows about the on-line attacks on Sarah Payne whose daughter was murdered, and on Kate and Gerry McCann who accused Twitter of encouraging ‘the worst in human nature.’ Grief and loss certainly bring out life’s losers on line, but for the last two years I’ve enjoyed tweeting; directing my opinion straight at monoliths such as the BBC and Network Rail. I’ve joined campaigns about palm oil and live animal transports, signed petitions, promoted charities. I did get some scary troll action; cyclists propelled by righteous anger threatened to find my address and run me over. One of them contacted all my previous employers trying to find someone to sack me. A transgendered man got my Twitter account suspended for saying he still looked manly.

Until this week didn’t understand how some, mostly women, have been driven away from social media. In 2017, SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh, said she’d received emotional damage from trolls who had ‘hurt her a lot.’ I wondered how hard-faced women like Emily Thornberry, Jess Phillips and Anna Soubry could be bothered by psychos on line. Now I know. I complained to Twitter but they said, unlike my words to the transgendered man, the deeply personal remark to me didn’t break any of their rules.

Presumably unforeseen by the four young men who invented it in 2006, a Twitter account now feels like belonging to an agreeable club which is stalked by a terrifying, sinister bully. It’s the irony of our time that while social media brings the whole world to our door, because of it we must now live, at best, in something like a small, claustrophobic village, where aggrieved curtain twitchers spend their time writing detailed poison pen letters.

There is still a chance that we can row back from this mire, by reaching for the manners we once had. Our grandparents knew zero about social media but quite a lot about man as a social animal and how he/she would behave if the normal constraints of discourse were discarded. In 2013 Classicist Mary Beard received abuse after appearing on BBC Question Time. She responded to what she termed, ‘Vile playground bullying’ by naming and shaming her attacker, but later she made friends with him, he apologised, presumably realising how crazy he’d been, and she gave him a job reference. I’ve contacted the woman who sent me the wounding message, asking about her life. I’ve had no reply but discovered that she’d been an infant prodigy who’d had family problems herself.

I’m not suggesting that Twitter should be turned into a therapeutic community, or we should stop banter, satire and sarcasm, as feminists demand, but that we need to make slow, reasoned contact again, rather than issuing lightening responses. It’s hard to live in a village, especially on which seems to be part lunatic asylum, and the only way to survive undamaged and undamaging, is like Professor Beard, to put respect and kindness in place of the now familiar instant hate.

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11 Comments on A Tweet too far.

  1. One of the reasons that people take to comments on thoughtful magazines like this one, is that very often the vicissitudes of contemporary working force us away from those long standing friends and family whom we would normally have discussed such deep issues with.
    The other places of discourse such as the kind of bars or coffee shops that were driven by intelligent conversation have become vanishingly rare, where would The Inklings meet now? The internet/cyberspace has reached far outside the workplace, how often have we seen couples staring at their telephones rather than each other, friends passing around an electronic gadget rather than talking, and has someone said to us ‘Do you mind if I just take this?’ as they proceed to blether away to someone who isn’t there, ignoring the person who is.

  2. I can remember trendy clergymen writing beamingly in the 1980s about how the world was becoming a global village. I laughed then at the thought that they’d never lived in an actual village. And of course a village has no borders and no semblance of nationhood.

    If Twitter has become a global village in cyberspace I laugh at the thought that heaven may have in its anger granted these clergy their prayer by giving them a variant of the curse of Babel.

    Nor is it surprising that any form of human communication that isn’t face to face loses the various forms of civility that would of necessity be otherwise present to prevent people coming to blows. People can write letters or blogs that deliver stunning blows to their opponents that they wouldn’t do if face to face with them.

  3. You’re an excellent writer on contemporary issues, Jane Kelly, and many people will miss you if you withdraw from the internet completely. But Twitter, Facebook and some other social media are anathema to reasoned, non-violent discourse, and what you recently experienced was violence, apparently from a “an infant prodigy who’d had family problems herself”, as if that’s any excuse, let alone an explanation.

    My mother was placed in an orphanage by her prostitute mother (only suspected, mind you, but I’ve seen the Children’s Aid Society reports) and no good father in 1930 and always pined for them. The dad sometimes actually came to visit her in the orphanage, if you can believe it. She took me on a boat trip once when I was about 5 to visit *dad* in his nursing home, but he was too far gone for the two of them to communicate – and I don’t mean he was in a state of dementia – rather he was aware of the great evil he and his concubine had done to my Mom and to her two sisters and refused to speak with her.

    Ironically, a very close relative of mine moved to the same road on which that orphanage (since torn down) was located 85 years after my mother was placed there.

    I would never join Twitter or Facebook, etc. and frankly, I intend to stop commenting on any websites, if I can possibly give up looking at all the clever things I say and how people give me all those upvotes. Very narcissistic and toxic.

    I’m now on the last book of Proust’s masterpiece. Have been ploughing away at it for about 4 years because my internet preoccupation interferes with deep reading.

    I don’t even really like talking with my family via e-mail. I still write letters.

    Take care and God bless.

  4. Dear Jane, I am most sorry to hear about your experience on Twitter, and you are absolutely right, there seems to be in all areas of life a move from the reflective, to the reactive. What you experienced was an acute example of this, a comment was made in electronic print with no thought to what the consequences would be for the recipient.
    Like you I have, on occasion, used the electronic media to take the overly powerful to task. Notably a deeply unpleasant CEO, a case when I was aware of the consequences of doing so, and ultimately suffered as a result of my action, not that I would do anything different if I was placed in the same circumstances again.
    David Jones writes in the preface to The Anathemata about what he calls ‘the break’ were he says that in the time from the mid-19th century leading up to the early 20th century ‘Western Man moved across a Rubicon’ and there was no way of returning to the old way of thinking, though he well understood the longing to return to the far shore. I fear that we are living through a similar ‘Break’ now, with those of us who have a memory of the pre-digital age rather aware of what is being lost. I often think that I would, if someone gave me access to the switch that would do it, turn the internet off, but I might as well tell the tide to turn.
    I suspect that the changes to human souls and human psychology that are being wrought by the internet, will not be fully understood for many years, if ever, but whilst we cannot stop the digital age we should all try and shape it (and that includes leaving it alone for long periods) so that it serves the best of humanity, and to remember that it should be always a servant to us, and never becomes master. Your last phrase is telling ‘slow reasoned contact’, is exactly what we should make with other people, whether electronically or in person.

    I suspect most strongly that we are living through a further ‘break’ now, and that much of what makes people apprehensive about the changes brought by the internet (amongst other things)

    • Could Twitter etc. not be seen as being a good thing in as far as it reveals people as they really are? People’s innermost thoughts and vile behavior, which have always existed, are now on full display as a warning to those of us (perhaps naïve) who consider ourselves civilized, mild-mannered and reflective. If any of us were stupid enough to think that evil people only existed historically, and were confined to the ranks of the Nazis and the Communists, the Einsatzgruppen or the SS concentration camp guards, we must now know that they still exist and live among us in alarmingly large numbers.

      The key is to make sure that they never gain control of society again.

  5. My understanding is that Mary Beard was criticised (aka ‘received abuse’) because she patronised a working-class Englishwoman who dared to complain about the effects of mass immigration on her town.

    • There is no excuse for the vile personal online abuse that Prof Beard has been subjected to (and her response was a mature one), but she is nonetheless a legitimate target for criticism of her virtue-signalling, of her sneering attempts to downgrade Western civilization (the only chance, for all its faults, the world has ever had of bootstrapping itself out of barbarism), of her ridiculous claim of equivalence between e.g. pre-Columbian Art (pleasing though much of it is) and the extraordinary flowering of Art in Western Europe from the Renaissance, and of her obsession with rape, to which she alludes to a troubling degree of frequency throughout her writings.

      • ‘the extraordinary flowering of Art in Western Europe from the Renaissance’
        Ha! Mary Beard probably thinks they talk of nothing else in the last English redoubts in Lincoln, Rotherham and a 1000 other ‘enriched’ towns.