Trial by so­cial me­dia? We’re bet­ter than that

The Daily Telegraph - - News review features -

‘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

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