“Can you stop the world, please? I want to get off. I formulated this wish as I watched Dr Matt Taylor break down in tears as he apologised to the public for wearing a shirt. A particular shirt, I mean.
For those of you who have been living in a bunker and are unaware of recent events, I should explain: Dr Taylor stepped in front of the cameras to give a progress report on the robot probe Philae that was about to complete its four billion mile journey and land on a comet. He was immediately subsumed by an online, print and social media sh*tstorm for wearing to his TV debut, a shirt covered in pictures of gun-totin’, basque-sportin’ comic bookesque ladies. Having made him cry, the sh*tstorm subsided, looking as smugly satisfied as a sh*tstorm can look.
My wish became more fervent shortly thereafter when the story about Adele supposedly snubbing Bob Geldof’s repeated requests for her to appear on the new 30-years-on Band Aid single hit the news. Bob Geldof completely denied it, but could barely be heard over the crackle of flaming torches, clanging of pitchforks and baying for Adelean blood that had sprung up the minute the story broke.
Now, make no mistake – Taylor’s shirt was an offence to God, man, fashion and particularly to the women in science whose lives are made a tiny bit harder by every tiny contribution to the sexist environment in which they work. But what really whipped up the hordes was the beautiful smell of vulnerability. Visual proof of A Badness! On a nerd who’s not going to know what hit him or how to defend himself! Go, go, GO! A minuscule mistake unleashed a lot of people’s inner bullies.
And why wouldn’t it? Everywhere we turn we are encouraged to clobber each other. Most TV programme formats depend on some form of bullying or other, from Big Brother to The X Factor. Simon Cowell has made untold millions picking on little guys. The business acumen of Alan Sugar – I’m sorry, LORD Sugar, I beg his pathologically touchy pardon – is dwarfed by his talent for and willingness to intimidate his hapless apprentices. Every programme is designed around and built on humiliation and its executors lauded as heroes.
Our prime minister’s nickname is “Flashman”, after the famous (at least among the kind of people who go round devising nicknames for the prime minister) bully in Tom Brown’s Schooldays because of his fondness for the sneering putdown and for jabbing at areas of personal or politically irrelevant weakness (his famous “Calm down, dear” managed to neatly combine all of the above as his reply to a question from the then shadow chief secretary to the treasury Angela Eagle and put the uppity woman right back in her place). Of course, to be fair, the government is bullied in its turn by the banks and corporations who don’t feel like paying tax or cleaving to workplace legislation or entering into fair contracts or any other democratic frippery that encroaches on the bottom line.
Internet trolls both help create and are created by this atmosphere. Social media is waging a constant war of attrition with the bullies who want to colonise it. The latter’s most recent success was in forcing Sara Payne off Twitter after years of stalking and harassment there. Well done, guys! Make sure those mothers of murdered eight-year-olds know what’s what!
I remember being bullied at school. Though it never got too bad – I semi-fortunately realised that you could be too weird for people to mess with, so I started going cross-eyed and letting out a little ‘Errrk!’ sound whenever anyone with malevolent intent approached and they would, startled, veer off in another direction – I hoped and longed for the day I would be grown up and able to leave it all behind me.
But no such luck. It’s everywhere – endemic and lucrative, brutal and brutalising. And it’s so hard to fight against because the only thing you can do – in the absence of putting a brake on the earth and a mass disembarkation – is implore everyone to be kind. Just be kind. I tried that with a bully once. I can hear him laughing still. Errrk.”