Twitter turns jokes into hanging offences

By Mic Wright on July 11th, 2012

I am going to have to put Twitter on the naughty step at this rate. Yes, the whole lot of you. Don’t think that I won’t.

You see, after this weekend’s unpleasant bullying of an ordinary Twitter user for asking a silly question about Wimbledon, which I wrote about on Monday, focus has switched: this time it’s a celebrity being pelted with virtual tomatoes for an imagined slight.

Richard Herring, he of Lee & Herring, Fist Of Fun and Talking Cock fame, wrote a column for the Metro in which he discussed heckling and put-downs he’s used to silence truculent audience members. In it, he recounted this story:

“At one gig, a woman was loudly and unamusingly commentating on everything that happened. I said: ‘You’re a bit talkative, aren’t you? You’re loquacious. It’s annoying. You’re the one woman in the world where a man would put Rohypnol in your drink and then leave you in the pub.'”

It’s a pretty good line that plays on the audience’s expectations of what someone would use Rohypnol for. It’s mildly edgy, but nothing that would trouble even the censorious tut-tutters in the post-Ross/Brand BBC Compliance Unit. And yet, Herring has found himself under sustained attack for making – yes, you guessed it – a “rape joke”.

Let me be clear: while I don’t believe there is any topic a comedian or any other artist should not tackle, rape is one of those issues that is obviously incredibly difficult to discuss. But that’s not what Herring did. He didn’t make a joke about rape.

To suggest that he did is to misinterpret his words in a way that leaves the intelligent observer concluding that a bit of purposeful and professional offence-taking is being done.

Of course, in the angry echo chamber of Twitter, many people have heard about this supposedly offence remark second- or third-hand. So now Herring is the comedian who made a joke about rape, as opposed to a broadly Left-wing performer with a tendency to wander into slightly taboo topics. He’s Bernard Manning without the beer gut.

What’s funny, of course, is that many of the most apoplectic whingers are the very same individuals who have rightly backed Paul Chambers in the Twitter Joke Trial case. Chambers, if you remember, was convicted after making a joke about blowing up Robin Hood Airport.

Free speech is a difficult concept for many people to get the hang of. It does not mean that you defend only sentiments with which you agree. Thus, while I defend the right of Chambers and Herring to make jokes without fear, I also have to tolerate the words of EDL supporters. It can be ugly, but that’s the price you pay for the freedom to say what you like.

It’s a freedom brutally fought for, not universal even today, and one we should cherish.

The ease with which social networks allow this kind of storm to be whipped up is frightening. At times, Twitter’s censorious wing can feel like a cloud-based, peer-to-peer Stazi. Dare to say something not acceptable to the party line and you too could end up where Herring is now.

One wrong move and you can be branded a misogynist, a sexist horror show, while real bad guys get away with it under the cover of cutesy jokes and a more palatable public face.

Why can’t Twitter grow up as a medium and move past these storms of indignation? Are they an addiction we will never shake? Is this what happens when you put large numbers of people together and allow them to hide behind their keyboards?

Because, if so, the righteousness of Twitter threatens either to make the medium irrelevant as a discussion forum, ignored by any commentator or media outlet with any common sense and thus robbed of its power, or worse: a humourless, finger-wagging, reproachful and bitter minority group, wielding destructive but unaccountable power over the rest of us.