I have just read about 200 articles, blog posts, tweets and comments about Jan Moir’s sickening article in the Daily Mail on Stephen Gately’s death.
For the record, I didn’t feel much at all about Gately’s death – apart from the tragic fact that someone my age died unexpectedly. So I was surprised, last weekend, when it dominated the BBC News all day Sunday.
It was still dominating on Monday, which surprised me further. But I figured it was merely a case of an establishment figure (you know, friends with Louis Walsh and Elton John – establishment) passing away.
Moir’s article doesn’t deserve comment. It’s just stupid, and I’m sure she knows that. Her logic doesn’t follow at all, but it doesn’t matter because she’s written something to provoke a response, which is her job. Fair enough, no matter how much I think the article itself is horrendous.
But what has interested me (and why I got sucked in and spent an hour reading literally hundreds of posts and comments) is the response.
I started off reading Damian Thompson’s post on the Daily Telegraph blog. It’s a fairly balanced piece, and makes an interesting comment about the freedom of speech among those living in the ‘social media world’. His contention is that these ‘liberals’ believe offense is fine if you are ‘liberal’, but should be closed down otherwise. Freedom of speech, in other words, should not be gifted to people like Moir.
This is a stupid thing to say because what Moir said was not wrong because of her particular viewpoint, it was wrong because she used a false argument to establish a falsehood as a fact. There is a case for penalising that sort of ‘comment’. Journalists have a responsibility not to go down that road – the freedom of the press in this country rests on that responsibility. Her editor should have been the one to throw the book at her.
That Moir’s ‘fact’ was hateful and deeply prejudiced only makes the matter worth doing something about. Hence the hundreds of complaints. I would hope that only a small number of these complainants are actually saying ‘nobody has the right to say something I don’t agree with’.
But don’t say ‘gay people are X’ (X could mean sordid, or licentious, or depraved, or evil, or whatever Moir wants it to be) and assert that people who are X (Robbie, Amy, Kate, Whitney, Britney, for example) will die in a bad way. It is not a logical argument that deserves to be aired and debated. It is a small-minded error.
So what of Thompson’s point about ‘liberals’ and their attitude to free speech? The reason I’ve added inverted commas to the word ‘liberal’ is because I want to make a point about Thompson’s use. I understand the distinction between his use of the word, and it’s real meaning, which is to say something along the lines of ‘broad-minded’. But it’s a bastardisation, and something popularised by right-wing commentators in America, such as Rush Limbaugh.
The irony is that the comments after Thompson’s post – and hundreds of other comments, posts and tweets I’ve read – are full of precisely the same illiberal (that’s how the word should be used) view that Thompson is rightly criticising. There are always going to be some people who argue against free speech – it’s nothing to do with being ‘liberal’ or not.
But this brings me circuitously to my main point. What really interested me was the extremity of many of the views I have read, whether extremely against Moir’s article, or extremely in defence of it. These extreme views would not have had an airing at any point in our history, but today social media gives them oxygen.
There are religious fanatics and small-minded anti-gays, deeply ‘progressive’ blockheads and anti-capitalists, all happily (or more likely, angrily) making their case on the issue of the day. And the issue isn’t about poor Stephen Gately at all, it’s about socially important issues – what we are entitled to say in public, how we should live our lives, how concerned we are about the direction of travel of our society.
It is the fact that these views are being expressed for free that makes them poignant. If your livelihood doesn’t rest on what you say, you can say what you really think. It makes for a noisy debate, and one that contains some outrageous views. But it is impossible to argue that – if you read hundreds of those views – it is not balanced. It just takes a while to find the centre ground.
And so I can say, I have found the centre ground, and here it is: the great British public are sad to see Stephen Gately die, they prefer to judge people based on their character rather than their lifestyle, and they think Jan Moir got this one very, very wrong.
Good for the British people.