Cast your mind back a week. Imagine it’s last Thursday. Imagine you’re at a dinner party and one gentleman says: “I voted Yes this morning, but whatever happens it’s a big day for everyone in Scotland, isn’t it?” After such a comment, what sort of reaction would you expect from the other guests? How about if one of them jumped up, jabbed a finger at the man and screamed: “Die! You traitor!” and then another one spat: “I wish you’d died when you were a child.” And then others joined in, swearing, insulting him and accusing him of “spewing s***”. Would that seem like normal behaviour to you?
I only ask because that’s what happened to Andy Murray. It wasn’t at a dinner party, it was on Twitter, but the reaction to his remark was exactly the same. Is it just me, or is invective like that just as horrifyingly unacceptable in social media as it would be if it happened at a social gathering? Surely a death threat is a death threat, whether made in 140 characters, or face to face? Unfortunately, many online aggressors still think they’re above the law.
Last Thursday, Murray tweeted: “Huge day for Scotland today! NO campaign negativity last few days totally swayed my view on it. Excited to see the outcome. Let’s do this!” So far, so unremarkable. Then the backlash started. He was called a traitor; one person, who said they wished he’d been killed at Dunblane, also added: “Your life will be a misery from now on.” One of the milder negative responses was that he was “a miserable toad”. The police said that the torrent of abuse Murray suffered was “vile”.
Trolling is nothing new – as JK Rowling, after adding her voice to the Better Together campaign, knows only too well – but this time our greatest tennis player seems more badly affected than usual. Sadly, Murray has now said that although he did not “regret giving an opinion”, it was “not something [he] would do again”.
The first tragedy here is that there are people among us who want to pour undiluted vitriol on anybody who disagrees with them. The second is that someone with something to say might think twice about saying it, for fear of loathsome threats and insults like these.
We all know that many people have it in them to be vicious, but trolling particularly puzzles me. For the first time in history, just about everyone can make their voice heard. In the West at least, we all have access to media which can broadcast our every thought. We have unprecedented freedom of speech. Logically, I would expect individuals who use this freedom, and presumably appreciate it, to accept that it must be extended to all comers. That’s fair enough, isn’t it?
Apparently not. Apparently only certain people are allowed to speak, express themselves or vent their spleen. Other people who disagree with them are wrong, evil and must be destroyed (in fact, you don’t even have to disagree with someone; after all, Andy Murray wasn’t arguing with anyone, he was merely saying how he felt).
I don’t understand how someone who benefits from the ability to say whatever they want, whenever they want, can’t see the irony or the injustice of denying others the same privilege. In the past, relatively few individuals could speak their minds and that must have rankled with the millions who went unheard. But now we can all share to our heart’s content, so why do some of us want to bully others into silence?
I would honestly have thought, given that almost all of us now have free and unlimited outlets for our thoughts, that we would become more tolerant of others’ opinions. Yet the opposite seems to be happening.
Are there really people out there who genuinely expect everybody to agree with them, all the time? For whom it is such a great shock when an alternative world view is presented, they have to rail against it? It’s not even as though the content of Murray’s tweet was a surprise. How anybody can get so worked up about it is beyond me, but how anybody can tell him to die, simply for legitimately expressing himself, is beyond the pale.
The anonymity of the internet has often been blamed for trolling, but it’s not as simple as that. The young man who called historian Mary Beard “a filthy old slut” on Twitter, and gave a graphic opinion about her intimate personal hygiene, did so under his own name. Only after she (bravely) made contact and spoke with him did he understand the gravity of what he had done.
Sometimes it’s about hiding behind the safety of an online alias, but mostly it’s about believing you can say whatever you like and having to do no more than simply press a button to achieve it.
What worries me most in this case is Andy Murray’s downhearted response. He wishes he hadn’t said anything. But Andy, if you stop saying anything, the browbeaters will have won.
You have nothing to be ashamed of. It was a fair comment; it was your comment. Own it. It was how you felt at the time and it was your right to speak out.
Having said that, the trolls have the right to speak too. My argument is entirely with their manner, not their prerogative.
This boils down to simple respect – the type we usually show when we meet each other in person. If it’s going to take even stronger legal measures to force us to be civil to each other in the chasm of cyberspace, so be it.
Trolls everywhere, I may disagree with your point of view, but I’ll still defend to the death your right to express it. However, what I won’t defend is your assumed right to be violent, abusive thugs. For that, you’re going to need a lawyer.