|A SARCASTIC RESPONSE TO ONLINE ABUSE|
THE CONTINUUM OF CELEBRITY
Andy Warhol's prophecy will definitely come true: one day, we will all have our share of celebrity. You can already see this happening on the Internet, where everyone is a celebrity of sorts. Stick something on the Web, and people you'll never meet or hear of will form an opinion of you.
And that opinion is often highly uncomplimentary. This fact seems to have taken a lot of traditional celebrities by surprise, if the various Twitter dramas I've read about are anything to go by. But in truth it should not have been so unexpected: people have always hated celebrities. If anything, that's what defines a celebrity: celebrity is the state of being hated by more people than know you personally. This is well known to the publishers of gossip magazines and trash newspapers, who make money out of the most unflattering portraits of celebs, and also to the cannier new breed of fame-hunters, like Piers Morgan and Simon Cowell, who have built their careers on being universally reviled.
Back when fame made a clear division between the haves and have-nots, celebrities seemed fair game for hatred; the argument was that celebrities had enough advantages in the rest of their lives to compensate, and that the exclusive bubble they lived in kept them well-shielded from abuse anyway. But one effect of the Internet has been to blur celebrity into a continuum, and share it in varying amounts among the masses. And with the democratisation of celebrity comes the democratisation of celebrity hatred; the Internet has given more people than ever before an opportunity to be widely disliked. Millions of Internet nanocelebrities are open to the abuse that fame inevitably brings, but unlike their more famous brethren, their level of celebrity brings few compensations.
Verbal abuse in itself isn't the problem: for people with few other resources to call upon, it's a valuable if usually ineffective weapon. I've even been known to take pleasure in its more creative forms. But as with any show of force, I believe it is only justifiable when employed by the weak against the strong, the righteous against the wicked, the victim against the perpetrator. The trouble is that these categories are not always clear-cut.
Before the Internet, it was easy to say that celebrities were strong, and the plebs weak, and therefore it was perfectly justifiable for the latter to heap insults on the former. In truth, it was never so simple — when Eric Cantona leapt over the hoardings to bury his studs in the face of a racist thug who was abusing him, I was firmly on the side of the millionaire footballer — but the Internet's blurring of celebrity has further problematised the issue. Now we have Internet microcelebrities being repeatedly shit on by trolls and hounded by creeps, entire forums devoted to hate, gangs specialising in online bullying. In all the above cases, the abusers could and probably would claim to be on the side of righteousness and the little man. But such claims would be lies or self-delusion; there's nothing good or progressive about their ends, their methods or their choice of targets. Pouring concentrated hate on individual celebrities, no matter how awful, does nothing to promote truth or justice or humanity. People who do this are thugs and bullies, manifesting the worst of human behaviour, and serving its worst interests.
But on the other hand, I've no time for people who would condemn verbal abuse in any form, or forbid it outright — these are typically empowered individuals who don't want their precious values or interests to be put under any scrutiny or criticism. I've no time for those who deploy the weasel word "hater" in an attempt to redirect guilt onto those who are highlighting their own. And I've absolutely no time for those who would constrain all discourse to their ideals of civility, morality and politeness — ideals which have been constructed to serve their own interests.
Rather, I believe it's almost a duty for those of us who enjoy sarcasm to fight for its good name, to exercise it righteously without descending into bullying or abuse. And so I believe we should strive for a more humane sarcasm, that directs its attacks upward or across, that attacks individuals only in so far as they represent malignant interests, that remembers that while individuals can hold vile opinions, they can always let them go. Individuals are just constructions, and what is constructed can always be reconstructed in a better way.
Humane sarcasm isn't easy — I've certainly crossed the line into bullying in the past, and I probably will again, maybe even in this article. You might say that's because I'm a rank amateur — or you might say worse — but even proper professional sarcasm artists find it a struggle to stay humane. In the rest of this article I want to look at two contrasting efforts to redeem sarcasm in the face of Internet hate, by two giants of the field.
CHARLIE BROOKER'S COURAGE AND COMPASSION
Charlie Brooker is a TV entrepreneur and humorist, and something of an Internet treasure. Brooker made his career in the British media by courting a large and previously untapped demographic: angry young male nerds. And he courted us with admirable skill and a salesman's eye for detail. He fearlessly strode the middle ground of the Internet consensus on almost every topic: like you, he was a big fan of Chris Morris, Adam Curtis, The Wire, comics, computer games and science; and like you, he hated paranormalists, hipsters, The Daily Mail, Noel Edmonds, and the baby Jesus. I fondly remember the first time I watched Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe, and saw him sitting alone in his fake grubby flat, taking delight in his own moderate witticisms, shouting "Cunt!" at people on the TV — it was like a window into my student days. For the first time, I truly felt I had found a vicarious representative on Planet TV — and what I saw horrified me.
Having ridden a wave of creeps to the top, Brooker now seems increasingly appalled at his fanbase. And to his credit, he has begun to take a stand against the Internet hate-mobs they appear in, both in his Guardian column and on his satirical news show Ten O'Clock Live. Last year, the Rebecca Black incident, in which hordes of foul-mouthed assholes lined up to spit hatred at one spoilt little rich girl whose Youtube video went viral, was featured on this show. With his trademark sarcasm, Brooker directly addressed Black's Youtube bullies:
"Here she is on a brilliant edition of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, just like you'll never be. See, she's famous. Perhaps you'd like a picture of that image to hang on your wall so you can look at it every morning before going to work in the shitty megachain burger outfit you'll be trapped in forever, selling Happy Meals with Rebecca Black's face on them, and as you pass these to customers who accurately look at you like you're nothing, you'll hear Rebecca Black's song looping on the in-store Muzak system as you slave away behind the counter five days a week from Monday to Friday, Friday, you've go to get down on Friday because that's the day you mop the fucking floor."
While the idea of attacking the bullies is to be applauded, Brooker's execution leaves a bad taste, not least because of the unnecessary barb slung at Black herself (and there were more in the full broadcast). Much more unpleasant is the sight of this successful television executive launching into a tirade against burger-flippers.
If the abuse directed at Black came only from the poorest in society, those trapped into doing the most menial and unrewarding jobs, those forever denied the precious company of Jay Leno, then it might have been more justified. But one only requires a passing familiarity with Internet trolls, their hang-outs, their tastes and interests, to know the most common sources of Internet hate: university-educated guys, well-exposed to bourgeois culture, working in white-collar jobs, or going to. Privileged guys unaware of their privilege; smart guys who find their intellect underappreciated; guys who are miffed that people aren't rolling out the red carpet for them wherever they go. And a good chunk of these guys form Brooker's own fanbase. Many of them were present in the Ten O'Clock Live audience.
But rather than bite the hand that feeds him, Brooker preferred to lay into the staff of McDonald's. This is all too typical of his creative output. I don't doubt that his disgust at the Youtube hate-mob was genuine, but faced with the prospect of taking on his own fanbase, Brooker's careerist instincts won over the day. And so he stuck to safe and weak and comfortably remote targets, inviting his well-nourished audience to join him in sneering at burger-flippers. Like the bullies he feints to criticise, Brooker seems most comfortable when punching down.
STEWART LEE'S SHRINE OF HATE
A much better and more interesting response to online abuse comes from Stewart Lee, the stand-up comedian and blaspheming librettist. Back in the 90s, when he formed a double act with Richard Herring, I found Lee too hip, too self-conscious and frankly too good-looking to be funny. But in the mid-2000s he made a comeback, older, greyer, fatter, and with a different style of delivery — and now I frequently find him hilarious, even when he's reworking his 90s material.
But Lee still isn't to everyone's taste, as is evidenced by the mass of online abuse he has received since his comeback. On his website, Lee has compiled a list of this abuse, which he has also taken to reading out during his stand-up act. The list begins as follows:
"A sneering tosser." Rowing Rob, Guardian.co.uk
And then it goes on, and on, and on, and on. And on. And then on for some more. It's very, very long.
And as the list goes on, as the insults accumulate, as the same shit appears again and again, something remarkable happens. What begins as simple unpleasantness soon becomes funny, then boring, then funny again, then a bit scary... then finally, profound. The insults blend into one another to become a monolithic mass; and within this mass, the tiniest variations acquire great significance. Motifs and rhythms begin to emerge, larger structures seem to appear. The list becomes a cathedral of abuse, a vast product of human effort — questionable effort, ethically dubious effort — but still magnificent through its sheer scale and presence.
Like an avant-garde composer — I'm reminded of the late works of Morton Feldman — Lee has assembled something beautiful from the meanest and most mundane material. And in doing so, he has simultaneously redeemed and ridiculed his abusers. What more can they say about him? The more abuse he receives, the more magnificent his cathedral becomes, and the more comically futile the attempts to abuse him. It's an inspired blend of humaneness and sarcasm, of the kind that makes Lee in my opinion the best stand-up comic around today.