Hannah McGill: Let's agree to disagree about Twitter

IN THE future, when Twitter has been all but abandoned and all that remains of it is a blasted wasteland through which a ravaged Ricky Gervais sadly roams, our grandchildren will gather at our knees to ask, 'What did it mean to be '˜hounded off Twitter'?'

Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell incurred the wrath of a National Union of Students official. Picture: Ian Gavan/Getty Images
Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell incurred the wrath of a National Union of Students official. Picture: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

And we will explain that people created a forum on which to share information; and within a few years it became such a convenient forum for releasing generalised rage that any prominent person involved in a mild public fracas could expect to be so flamboyantly insulted that they would depart in tears, except JK Rowling, who was made of titanium and drew inhuman strength from the combination of being shouted at by Scottish Nationalists and asked intricate questions about the inner lives of Death Eaters.

Last week, Stephen Fry left Twitter, not for the first time, because an affectionate dig he made at a friend’s Bafta outfit was misconstrued and attracted torrents of abuse. Fran Cowling, the National Union of Students’ elected LGBT officer, refused to appear on a debate panel with the veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, whom she considers racist and transphobic; encountered a media fuss when he made this public; and left Twitter rather than explain her position to people who’d never heard of her the day before. Whether they come back, or whether these mirror-image scandals – famous person defends his right to be offensive/non-famous person declines to defend her right not to be offended – are finally just further chips in the façade of Twitter as a useful medium, the impression gained is that to be a public person at all today one must either practice utter innocuousness in all matters, or develop an iron resistance to mockery or criticism.

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Meanwhile, the position taken by Cowling and the many who defended her last week is that feeling “safe” is paramount in education, and that exposure to certain opinions constitutes unacceptable unsafety.

What’s missing in all of this is a healthy respect for disagreement. Twitter ragers, comments section grouches and sensitive “safe space” flowers seem to be shelving any sense that one can benefit from and even enjoy encountering differing opinions.

A statement from some supporters in the Young Greens argued that Cowling has the right to refuse to talk with someone she “feels morally at odds with” or “finds problematic”. And she does – even if it might limit her effectiveness as a representative in an area fraught with complex experiences and differing opinions. She is also young, and the young are particularly prone to wanting everybody to agree with them; and she doesn’t have Peter Tatchell’s decades of media experiences, so he indubitably directed an unfair amount of ire her way. Still, though – isn’t being “morally at odds” with people part of life, and certainly part of higher education? Isn’t defending ourselves how we learn what we think, and listening to others how we best understand or challenge them? And isn’t the ability to recognise that another adult might, for countless reasons, draw different conclusions from us based on the same evidence, just part of being a sane adult? A world cleansed of disagreement sounds far from safe to me.

Beatrix Potter takes on Brussels

FACING the unenviable task of trying simultaneously to appease racist Tories who want out of Europe because Johnny Foreigner smells funny, and business Tories who want to stay in Europe the better to keep chopping bits of it off and selling them, David Cameron is breaking out the big guns. He made moves to sweeten one of his prime detractors in securing a special deal for Britain, namely Belgian PM Charles Michel, by giving him a set of Beatrix Potter books for his baby daughter.

Cutesy? Not if you know your Beatrix Potter. Mrs Tittlemouse is a hardworking householder who is continually troubled by incursions by dirty insects and inconsiderate neighbours, and goes to bed wondering if her house will ever be tidy again. Peter Rabbit is a brazen economic migrant who scavenges radishes and is punished with a stomach ache and the withdrawal of his supper. Squirrel Nutkin breaks from the other squirrels to obtain a special deal for himself from the tyrannical owl Old Brown, bravely sacrificing a bit of his tail in the process. Beatrix Potter herself, meanwhile, backed a 1910 campaign to protect British industry from foreign competition, after bootleg German Peter Rabbit toys flooded the market. As a gift, then, this might be less fluffy than it seems. Perhaps Cameron’s got a box set of ’Allo ’Allo for Francois Hollande.

Gaelic without groans?

MUCH debate has sprung up lately around the status of Scots Gaelic and Scots dialect: whether it’s “cultural cringe” that consigns Scots dialect to being regarded as poor English rather than a language; whether it was necessary to resign the term “Makar” for our National Poet and whether indeed that role might be filled by a Gaelic writer. Well, for those like me whose family lines have dropped their Gaelic, and those who never had it in the first place, there’s an easier way to feel included! Google Translate has added Scottish Gaelic on its books. Although the general reliability of online translation tools mean we should also prepare for sounding to native speakers like characters from the aforementioned ’Allo ’Allo.