Social media flattens everything out, meaning outrage at a No-Deal Brexit becomes equal to outrage about pop culture fripperies
I was recently reliably informed by an article in Grazia magazine that it’s time to cancel cancel culture. Well, it doesn’t seem to have happened just yet. Adjust your @ messages accordingly. Everyone is annoyed about everything on the internet all the time. Johnny Rotten said that anger is an energy, and indeed Silicon Valley is pretty much solar powered by your annoyance that, I dunno, Joe Pasquale compared Iggy Pop’s stomach to Homer Simpson’s face, or something.
Anyway, there is legitimate reason to be fucked off right now. Our weird posho Prime Minister, a man Hugh Grant – fucking Hugh Grant! – has called, with fantastic accuracy, “an over-promoted rubber bath toy” (I can’t do better than that, I’m afraid), has received permission from the Queen to suspend Parliament for around four weeks from mid-September, leaving MPs potentially just four days to put together a plan to prevent the damaging no-deal Brexit plan he’s threatened to implement.
The incisive political commentator Femi Oluwole has explained how undemocratic this is: “54% of people voted for parties who explicitly ruled out No Deal. For a country that called the EU undemocratic to be dragged out of the EU without a deal, against the wishes of the majority of voters, by a Prime Minister that nobody even contemplated at the election, would be laughable and historically undemocratic.” The outrage at Johnson’s blatant attempt to faux-bumble his way over democratic process has been undeniable: there’s an online petition, which at the time of writing is approaching 1.5 million ‘signatures’, and there was an IRL protest, organised online, in Westminster yesterday evening.
This is the stuff that social media has been good for: people power, man. It’s the same reason films from just a couple of years ago now seem unwoke: we’ve been opened up to millions of people’s viewpoints, which has shifted the cultural conversation irrevocably. I watched Juno on a plane recently and thought, “Wow! This is a heteronormative movie!,” which I did not think in 2007. I guess a lot of people thought that in 2007, but the point is that we’ve all become more aware of each other. And of political movements like those outlined above.
But Johnson will get away with it regardless, will push through a worst case scenario that nobody voted for, if necessary, because the outrage expressed online will ultimately mean nothing. When everyone is outraged about everything all the time, what does it mean that you happen to be upset about something else? Take a dumb example: Troye Sivan fans are outraged that a gay magazine asked the pop star some daft Smash Hits-style questions about his sex life.
Their outrage gained traction, causing Troye himself to dub the line of questioning “wildly invasive, strange and inappropriate”. In reality it was a silly, rapid-fire interview clearly meant to be cheeky and light-hearted. Other things people have been outraged about on social media lately: Lizzo attempting to trademark a phrase, the parody band Steel Panther being a shit joke and Reading & Leeds festival erecting non-crush barriers at this year’s festival. Not everything that happens relates to a wider social issue. Sometimes it just it what it is.
Let me get pretentious for a moment. In 1932, Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World imagined a utopia in which people always have access to whatever they want, and subsequently they focus on all the wrong things. If the book had come out in 2019, I wonder if he’d have published it 280 characters at a time. I really think that’s what’s happening now: it seems impossible to tackle the enormous democratic failures of recent years, so let’s get fucked off about a Troye Sivan Q&A instead, shall we? But what social media does is flatten everything out.
The algorithm doesn’t know the difference between your annoyance about Brexit and your annoyance about, I dunno, Sue Pollard saying she thinks that those jumpsuits in Guantanamo Bay are a lovely colour. So it all becomes equal. Johnson will get away with his bullshit because the outrage will blow over. Lizzo’s career will continue because the outrage will blow over. And next week everyone will get annoyed about something else. And so on and forth, the cycle repeated endlessly, or until Joe Pasquale and Sue Pollard become relevant again.
What I’m saying is: maybe we should just chill out and get annoyed about the stuff that matters and give the stuff that doesn’t the benefit of the doubt. The journalist who interviewed Troye Sivan probably didn’t mean to cause offence. Probably the Lizzo thing is something and nothing. Meanwhile Johnson is an entitled and dangerous man who is abusing a massive position of power, and most of us stand to lose. Cancel cancel culture? Not a bad idea.