Discover more from Social Warming by Charles Arthur
Graham Norton, JK Rowling and the standing mob rules
Alternatively, you could vote to be ruled by an AI in Denmark?
So. Graham Norton has deleted his Twitter account, apparently (because he hasn’t commented on it) after seeing the responses, on Twitter, to his remarks during an interview with Mariella Frostrup at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.
What got clipped off the front of most of the coverage was that the remarks came well into an hour-long interview, ostensibly about his new book (Forever Home; I’m told it’s good). Frostrup is on her last question, after what has been a very enjoyable discussion, before opening up to questions from the floor.
Frostrup: It’s almost impossible to find anyone with a bad word to say about you. But… people did get a bit upset about JK Rowling and you having her on Virgin [Radio]1. Do you think about cancel culture in any great shape or form, because the other thing I was struck about when I was in Ireland very recently was that it almost doesn’t exist there, because Irish people just talk, you know. And they can talk about anything and nothing. And that’s not to say that terrible things haven’t happened in Ireland, as we know, whether with the church or with the Troubles. But there is a sense that nothing is off-limits, so long as you go about it in the right way, maybe that’s the thing..
Norton: Maybe, I don’t know, it’s interesting…
Here he launched into the remarks that got clipped and turned into a thousand articles:
“You read a lot of articles in papers by people complaining about cancel culture and you think, in what world are you cancelled? I'm reading your article in a newspaper [Frostrup laughs], or you're doing interviews about how terrible it is to be cancelled? I think the word is the wrong word. I think the word should be accountability. John Cleese has been very public recently about, complaining about ‘what you can say’, and I just think it must be very hard to be a man of a certain age, who's been able to say whatever you like for years, and now suddenly, there's some accountability there. It's, it’s, it’s free speech, but not consequence free.
I’m aware of the things I say—
Frostrup: I am, usually after the event, and then *boom*. But what about then—that’s a very easy target, middle-aged man who’s used to saying what he wants, ruled the world, mansplains everywhere he goes, etc etc. But for example, JK Rowling for example then, that’s harder to make a point with, when you see someone expressing what may or may not be popular opinions, but to be deluged with that kind of anger, rage and attempts at censorship—that seems to me more than just a middle aged man who wants to say what he used to say in the days of empire.
Norton: What I feel is weird about this is that when I’m asked about it, I become part of the discussion. (Frostrup: I know, that’s what I’m wondering.) All I’m painfully aware of is that my voice adds nothing to that discussion, and I’m sort of embarrassed that I’m somehow drawn into it. And if people want to shine a light on those issues, and I hope people do, then talk to trans people, talk to the parents of trans kids, talk to doctors, talk to psychiatrists, talk to someone who can illuminate this in some way. I’m very aware that as Bloke Off The Telly, your voice can be artificially amplified. And once in a blue moon that can be good, but most of the time it’s a distraction. It’s for clicks: you can put my name in a headline—Graham Norton slams, Graham Norton defends, Graham Norton weighs in on, and actaully Graham Norton shouldn’t be in your headline.
If you want to talk about something, talk about The Thing. You don’t need to attach a Kardashian or whatever to a serious subject. The subject should be enough in itself. It’s that Michael Gove thing about “we’ve had enough of experts”. No, please can we have some experts! Please can we rustle up some experts and talk to them, rather than Man in Shiny Pink Suit2.”
This all reads very sensibl,y but was not, as you’ll guess, anything like the end of it. Billy Bragg agreed with Norton on Twitter, which prompted JK Rowling herself to respond:
You could read this as being said in a jokey fashion, or sardonically, or really angry irony. What didn’t happen was that everyone relaxed. No, as you’d expect, given that Rowling has 13 million followers compared to Bragg’s 322,000 (and Norton’s, then, 1.4 million), this prompted a blizzard of angry tweets back and forth between the standing armies of pro-trans and pro-Rowling tweeters (even though I don’t see those two groups as being exactly in opposition). At some point Norton appears to have decided he’d had enough. He doesn’t seem to have responded to any requests for comment, which makes sense given his remarks about about not wanting to be Bloke Off The Telly with an opinion: it would just become GRAHAM NORTON BREAKS SILENCE OVER TWITTER DELETION.
The whole spectacle is ultimately depressing—Norton is an amazing TV and radio presence, even if his Twitter presence was pretty milquetoast. This prompted a tweet thread from Adam Tinworth, who lectures in Audience Strategy at the University of London’s department of Journalism.
Here’s the full text of the thread (which I’ve used, with attribution, with Adam’s permission; you’ll realise why I asked permission first rather than just grabbing it as one normally does with Twitter threads).
“It’s depressing to see another public figure driven from Twitter for the crime of trying to find a tactful answer to the impossible “CC” question. There is no answer to that question that does not get at least one group of highly online, highly ideological people angry at you.
“It’s becoming a totemic issue to the degree that I’m not even using the phrase in my thread because I know from experience that there are people searching for the term, who will happily sealion into the conversation.
“The reality, of course, is that it’s all about power. Public social media, like Twitter, like Facebook, delivered highly organised ideological groups extreme power to make other people’s lives difficult. Sometimes this is good. Sometimes this is bad. It dates back to *at least* 2009.
“At some level, though, we have to acknowledge there’s a good reason that we don’t use angry mobs as a system of justice in most civilised parts of the world, and it doesn’t seem like a great idea to make it a routine form of justice in the online world. This is not a politically partisan point: once a gun is invented, it can be used to shoot anyone, both those we detest and those we admire. Online power does not respect politics, it only respects numbers and commitment.
“We’re on a dark path, and our discussions about it are woefully trivial right now.
Perhaps the only bit of good news that is that *finally* our traditional systems of justice are beginning to work on online abuses. Alex Jones is bankrupted. Alex Belfield is in prison.”
The link in that “dates back to 2009”, in case you haven’t followed it, is to how British Twitter users completely wrecked a superinjunction—an injunction whose existence couldn’t be mentioned due to an injunction on talking about the injunction. (Fight Club, basically.) The injunction was on The Guardian, and a story about a company called Trafigura, which was accused of dumping toxic waste on the Ivory Coast. An MP mentioned it in Parliament, which legally means it’s protected from libel. Twitter got hold of the story and the superinjunction fell apart within hours. Good Twitter!
But the Rowling/Norton/Bragg episode is, as Tinworth says, Not Good. Brendan O’Neill of Spiked said that Norton was getting a taste of what he’d described, and being held to account:
Instead of agreeing that it is wrong that Rowling is subjected to vile misogynistic abuse, not to mention threats of rape and death, he uttered a perfunctory ‘Yeh’, before moving on to say that we need fewer celebs holding forth on trans issues and more ‘experts’.
By default I expect to disagree vehemently with O’Neill. In this case I’m amazed to say I agree. The raw misogynistic bile aimed at Rowling is astonishing, and the real problem is that its continuation will not magically make her change her mind. I’m reminded constantly of the fable of the wind and the sun competing to make a man take off his coat. The wind goes first and blows as hard as it can, which only makes the man wrap it round tighter. The wind gives up; the sun takes over and shines, and the man unwraps in the heat.
However, this isn’t how Twitter functions. The prevalence of Angry Mobs essentially keyword-surfing to find things to be angry about is a serious problem. What makes it worse is that this sort of activity rewards obsessive people with too much time on their hands who REALLY WANT YOU TO KNOW THEIR OPINION, and why yours is wrong, as this is usually their reason for engaging with you. I’m sure you know what I mean: the tedious sealion who just won’t stop, who once you mute or block them, and take a look at their tweets, you find has moved on to the next person or Twitter canoe in order to air their views.
Is there a solution? I’m here to tell you: no. Social networks aren’t set up in a way that would enable that—where experts and expertise could be rewarded and would gain respect as a result. Instead, it’s a wild free-for-all where standing armies are always ready to have a fight. There’s no fixing that. All you can do is mute, and block, and try to identify people who are reasonable in discourse.
Norton recognised that some time ago, and had an interesting observation in an interview with Jonathan Dean in The Times (£) in mid-September, before all this blew up:
Last month, for instance, he had JK Rowling on the radio despite the author, as he says, having “problematic” views. Although he has not talked to her about the transgender issue, he imagines that they would disagree. “So I wouldn’t have her on to air her views,” he says. “But she has the right to still wang on about her crime novel. The easiest thing would be to not have her on, but that didn’t seem right.
“We should talk to people that we disagree with and I would not further any cause by not having her on. She will still sell a gazillion books. Also, I got an insight into her when she talked about enjoying the pub brawl aspect of Twitter. I thought, ‘Oh, now I get it — you enjoy this.’”
I think that’s very astute. I can’t see Rowling having continued on Twitter if she wasn’t up for a bit of argy bargy. For her, it might be a bit of the grit that makes the pearl: the insight into some of the colours in people’s souls that a writer needs to see. In the end that comes down to personality: Norton doesn’t like it, she does. And meanwhile one of the standing armies will claim another victory, even if neither side has actually advanced their cause in the slightest; they remain just as far apart, just as opposed, just as ready to fight.
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• Operational note: I’m going to be on holiday for three weeks, so The Overspill and this Substack will be quiet for a bit.
Glimpses of the AI tsunami
(Of the what? Read here.)
• The company that produced Stable Diffusion has raised $101m in venture capital, valuing it at $1bn. As well as illustrations, it also has a music-generating company.
• A new Danish political party—The Synthetic Party—derives its policies from AI and has an artificially intelligent representative.
The Synthetic Party’s public face and figurehead is the AI chatbot Leader Lars, which is programmed on the policies of Danish fringe parties since 1970 and is meant to represent the values of the 20 percent of Danes who do not vote in the election. Leader Lars won't be on the ballot anywhere, but the human members of The Synthetic Party are committed to carrying out their AI-derived platform.
…when asked if AI should set the basic income level, Leader Lars responded, "I believe that AI should be included in setting the basic income level as it can help make an objective assessment of need and ensure that everyone gets a fair share."
Needs 20,000 signatures to be eligible for the election. At the start of the week had.. 12. You’ll have to wait a little longer, robot overlords.
• Adobe has launched Project Blink, an AI-powered video editor. Soon they’ll be giving them away in cornflakes boxes.
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Rowling was a guest on Norton’s Virgin Radio show in August, where she talked about her new Cormorant Strike novel The Ink Black Heart, which deals centrally with internet culture. They didn’t discuss trans issues.
A self-reference to the zingy clothes that Norton has always worn as part of his TV persona.