Why can’t the instinct for collective hatred be channelled at those who truly deserve it, asks Ashley Davies
W hen I told a colleague I was baffled about why certain harmless individuals – waistcoat-loving banjo-wielders Mumford & Sons, for example – come in for such a disproportionate amount of abuse, her immediate response was: “They don’t get abused nearly enough as far as I’m concerned.” Bit harsh, I thought, even if she was half joking. Their music may not be everyone’s jar of elderflower cordial, but it’s no way near as dreadful as some of the audio offal that taints the airwaves, and, as far as I’m aware, none of them has ever committed an act of cruelty or neglect, so why is it seemingly acceptable to attack them?
The molten invective heaped upon them is so prevalent that people who do like them are often forced to hide their true feelings, like closet Tories at a Billy Bragg gig. A cursory online search throws up some seriously mean headlines, such as “Don’t let Mumford & Sons trick you into liking them” and “Why did we bother hating a band as boring as Mumford & Sons?” Someone even set up a Facebook group called “I Hate Mumford & Sons”, its mission statement including the plea: “Humanity must now unite in our hatred for the treacherous banjo b*****ds.”
It’s completely out of proportion. Some people truly seem to enjoy joining virtual forces to attack others, which makes perfect sense if the targets are stone-hearted, socially blind welfare snatchers, genocidal despots or those who spit on the pavement, but why focus so much bile on people whose worst crime is to have achieved some sort of success? And how does it snowball? Most importantly, how does it become acceptable for everyone to join in a mass bullying party?
I have no problem with people being critical. What worries me is the mindset that seems to believe that because someone’s already been the subject of a ton of abuse, a little bit more won’t make any difference.
This week’s hatred target, if you follow the kind of people I follow on Twitter, is Lee Nelson, a laddish character created by the comedian Simon Brodkin. His latest prank was showering outgoing Fifa president Sepp Blatter with dollar bills at a press conference, and at Glastonbury last month he snuck on stage with Kanye West for a few awkward moments. Although there were plenty of hurrahs for his pranks, if you look at the way a lot of tweeters laid into Nelson you’d think he’d punched Dame Judi Dench right in the face. Tweets included: “Today was probably the first time Lee Nelson wasn’t the biggest p***k on stage”; “Hopefully one day Lee Nelson’s ego gets so big he tries to be ‘wacky’ with Isis” and “Lee Nelson seemingly trying to position himself as some sort of culture-jacker to cover up the fact he’s about as funny as typhoid”. One tweeter may have represented the frustration felt by those who know that Brodkin, who is actually a kind and thoughtful former GP, is selling himself short with this character: “Lee Nelson has a habit of getting himself into a great position then doing nothing useful with it. See also: his TV show.”
But the abuse heaped upon him is a sweet kiss on the forehead from Felicity Kendal compared with the disproportionately wild hatred felt for fellow comic Michael McIntyre. A recent tweet said: “Can someone please murder Michael McIntyre and put the world out of its misery? What an unfunny stain on society.”
It doesn’t help that he’s frequently attacked by comedians I admire – albeit when they’re “in character”. Again, McIntyre’s not my cup of tea but what has he actually done to deserve such a tirade of meanness? Is it his ubiquity? Is it because his brand of observational humour is hardly original and at worst lazy? So what? It tickles the right spot for plenty of people and nobody’s getting hurt.
Another person who gets unfairly assaulted is Jamie Oliver, perhaps because some people think he’s posher than he’s letting on and seems to be quite pleased with his lifestyle, which, for some seems to be an offence up there with recruiting child soldiers. Again, whether you like the personality he presents or not, he has done a huge amount of good for school nutrition and for making cooking seem less regimented and intimidating. But still, ganging up on him seems to be acceptable.
Two other targets for these irrational emotions are Sting and Bono, who are deemed by many to be too smug to be left alone (including by me, I confess), despite having done more work for the environment or charity than most of us will ever do.
Maybe these folks should take a leaf out of James Blunt’s book. For years it was open season on this former army officer whose only sin appeared to have been singing boring songs, dating loads of models and being posh. He was the embodiment of a hate target who really didn’t deserve the incandescent levels of scorn heaped upon him, and the attacks got somewhat out of hand. A couple of years ago he started kicking back at some the people who slagged him off on Twitter and his comebacks turned his popularity around in a big way. When somebody tweeted: “@BBCRadio2 Please please please please stop playing James Blunt please... thank you”, Blunt responded with: “Dad? Is that you!?” Most of his retorts are too smutty for a family newspaper, but they totally changed the way people viewed him, which is kind of sad – that he had to get nasty for people to think he was OK.
Is it tall poppy syndrome that makes it so easy for people collectively to lay into certain public figures? Because if it was as simple as that then many more people would be targets. Maybe society feels it needs these easy lightning rods because people are unconsciously too scared to focus on the kind of people who truly deserve to be hated – those who exploit the vulnerable, abuse the system and their power and don’t pay their fair whack of tax.
If we really have this collective instinct for hatred, why not refocus it on those who really deserve it? It’s not like there’s a shortage of them.