Trial by social media? We’re better than that
‘Common courtesy”, “decency” and “natural justice”. According to his family, this was all Carl Sargeant expected. He got none. Instead, when allegations of “unwanted attention” and “inappropriate touching” surfaced, the 48-yearold Welsh Labour minister was immediately sacked.
Despite pushing for more details on the nature of the claims and warning that his mental health was at stake, Sargeant still hadn’t been told what he was accused of four days later, when the father-oftwo took his own life. “Why would you kill yourself if you hadn’t done anything?” raged the Twitter mob. “#metoo”.
More than the saloon-bar logic, #metoo chills me to the core. Because it was the court of #metoo – where judge and jury are one and the same, and increasingly hysterical – that tried and convicted Sargeant without hearing the charges. And today they are doing the same with the latest men accused, whether they’re Hollywood actors, MPS or hoteliers.
Those from far less public walks of life aren’t safe from #metoo’s lynchings, either. Over the past month, everyone from middle management, civil servants, shopkeepers and teachers have been condemned at the first hint of impropriety – a word which, in itself, could mean anything and nothing.
But what do the facts matter? It’s feelings that are important to #metoo: feelings of selfrighteousness and anger; indignation and revenge for all the slights, injustices and offences (criminal and otherwise) suffered at the hands of men. Those feelings can’t be denied, argued with or joked about, because the offences at the root are very real and should not be accepted or tolerated. The grotesqueness of them has also been highlighted by real-life poster villains like Harvey Weinstein who is as powerfully emblematic of the Hollywood old boys’ club as any number of men at Pestminster, where politicians are being “unmasked” at a dizzying rate from both sides.
And yet right now, that single hashtag and the social media it inhabits is in danger of doing more harm than good.
It wasn’t, in fact, actress Alyssa Milano who first came up with the once rallying (and now sadly enraging) cry when she tweeted a “call-out” to victims, but an unknown American activist named Tarana Burke 10 years ago. After hearing the confession of a girl experiencing horrific abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, the then youth camp worker “watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone, and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper: ‘Me too…’ ”
Simple, bold and declarative, the statement born that day was intended to mean “I’m not alone” and “I’m not ashamed”. But “it’s not about a viral campaign”, Burke has said, “it’s about a movement.”
Rather than proudly lay claim to starting a push for female empowerment that has spread all over the globe, Burke chose to point out the differences between a viral campaign (wild and uncoordinated and, like any virus, blows up, then disappears) and a movement (serious, unwavering and enduring), that tells me she knows or fears that the words which came from the “deepest, darkest place in my soul” have become little more than an attention-seeking slogan.
Because for all the good that has come out of #metoo, social media will, by its very nature, always drag itself down into a mosh pit of madness in which all nuances are lost and the most complex issues of the day reduced to childlike caricatures of good and bad. So as Brexiteers are pitted against Remoaners, men are pitted against women.
“A witch hunt” is how Tory MP Sir Roger Gale described the current state of the sex pest scandal yesterday. And in the “wilting flowers” sideswipe he took at the female journalists he holds partly responsible, one can hear a bitterness that women should get used to – because it’s seeping into every aspect of our lives now. “I’m never sharing a taxi with a woman again,” “Why would you employ women in this climate?” and “I’ve stopped making jokes with the women” are comments men have made to me in the past week. But all of these are dwarfed by a teenager who said simply and only semi-apologetically: “I’m beginning to really dislike women.”
If we took away the hashtag and made it a steady, pacy movement based in reality, rather than a wild and shambolic virtual attack, it would be infinitely more powerful and remain a force for good.
As it is, social media may have blown it up into another Arab Spring: all those excited hoards in Tahrir Square clutching their mobiles – then back comes the army.
Sacked: Carl Sargeant never discovered what he was accused of