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It’s rather apt that on the week when Vada gets itself established on Twitter (@VadaMagazine), I’ve chosen to write about one of the Twitterverse’s least lovely aspects – the inevitable online shitstorm which follows when a person says something which offends someone else.
Caitlin Moran, TV critic, columnist and author of How to Be a Woman, was at the epicentre of one such shitstorm this week thanks to an article she wrote for the The Times. The article begins:
“When I first started being serious about being a bleeding heart pinko liberal lefty right-on lover of women, gays, disableds, mentals, the working class, transsexuals and all the ethnics – apart from the Chinese, obviously. It’s difficult to trust them. They’re a cruel race. Or is that supposed to be the Japanese? I can never remember – I did it because it seemed to be the right thing. The polite thing.”
Understandably, many people weren’t particularly impressed with the use of terms like ‘mentals’, ‘all the ethnics’ or the caricaturing of the Chinese and/or Japanese as cruel. They made their displeasure very well known. That said, the piece is titled ‘Equality is not humanity’s cashmere bedsocks. It’s not a present. It’s a necessity’, and coupled with her description of herself as a ‘bleeding heart pinko liberal lefty’, I don’t think it’s a huge leap for me to suggest that Moran wrote this passage in a deliberately facetious way, with an attempt (however misguided) at humour.
There have been quite a few occasions over the past year when certain portions of the Twitterverse have whipped themselves up into a righteous frenzy over things Caitlin Moran has written, and for a much more thorough detailing of this than my paltry word count can allow, I’d recommend Helen Lewis’s very good blog here.
Every time this happens, though, the same thing occurs – people take to the Internet to accuse her of being homophobic, or transphobic, or disablist, or racist, based on whatever it is they’ve read which offends them. Whatever my own views on Moran’s writing, I will not attempt to rob people of their right to be offended by the things they have read. However, the trend which worries and really bothers me is the leap from an opinion formed about what an individual has written to claiming that the writer is a certain type of person. And it’s not just the fact that I think this is lazy, sensationalist bullshit which bothers me; it’s that this line of thinking falls foul of a basic problem encountered in 20th Century literary criticism (and finally that undergraduate Philosophy of Literature module pays off).
In their essay ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley wrote that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” In essence, you can’t read a poem or novel or, I would also argue, an article or column or even a tweet, and claim to know what the writer meant or felt. A non-fiction article might purport to be the author’s opinions and feelings made writ, but when you consider how often we all use tools like humour, sarcasm, irony, and hyperbole, you realise these pieces are as crafted and artificial as any other piece of ‘literary art’ – and interpretation is everything.
Let’s take one of the Caitlin Moran shitstorms as an example. After receiving the ‘Honorary Gay of the Year’ award from Attitude magazine, she wrote on Twitter:
“I think this means I now own all the gays? As, like, pets? Like Sea Monkeys, with amazing hair/shoes?”
This prompted someone to call her ‘horribly homophobic’. Now, I accept that perhaps to some people, that tweet could be considered offensive. Maybe. I suppose. At a push. Ok, well no, it’s just not, is it? I mean, fucking hell, do they not have a basic grasp of comedy?
And my reaction is essentially just the counterpoint to the person who thought the tweet was homophobic; we’ve both looked at the same text and taken two different standpoints on it. We’ve only got the tweet itself – I think it’s funny and not meant to be taken seriously, and they think the exact opposite. However, they’ve gone a step further, and, I would assert a step too far, in calling her homophobic. There is an epistemic gap between an interpretation of the tweet as homophobic, and knowing that Caitlin Moran is a homophobe; that is to say it is impossible to know her intention just from the text itself. And as far as I’m concerned, terms like racist, transphobe or homophobe aren’t ones you should throw around without a bloody good reason. Anyone who writes will know that it’s not always easy to articulate your thoughts and opinions in the written word, and I’d hate to think some poorly worded column of mine could result in accusations of bigotry, when in fact it’s just badly written.
Put simply, if someone writes something on the Internet you don’t like, by all means take offence and by all means decry the use of certain terms or words. However, for the love of Cher, don’t use your precious 140 characters to claim that the author is a certain kind of person. I’m not offering a defence of Caitlin Moran’s opinions or her writings, I’d just really like those offended people to realise what it is they’re objecting to – the words, not the author’s opinions, because very often they’re not the same thing at all. If my words have offended you, find me on Twitter (@badlydrawnroy) and object – it’s your right, and after all, what is Twitter without a good, old-fashioned shitstorm?