Blue Ticks and Dead Parrots: the Old Jokes of Musk and Cleese

Watching Elon Musk’s management ‘style’ unfold as he takes a wrecking ball to Twitter and engineers performative mass sackings is sickening. Not just for the bad taste and pettiness but the prospect of such a man being in charge of such an important public resource. The queue of toxic people banished to Gettr and other platforms appealing a return in the new era of ‘absolute free speech’ promised by Musk is also a daunting prospect.

The role of big tech and its ownership of the means of communication and the commons of social media is a brutal reality and an assault on democracy. The need for common public ownership of these platforms has never been clearer.

The rise of libertarianism and its ownership by the right and far-right is a hallmark of our time, and Musk’s intervention its latest — and potentially most dire — manifestation. The platform will be ruined if, as seems likely the ‘free speech’ ethics is used to trump everything else.

Discussing the new book by Matthew Syed, ‘What Do You Think?’ Zoe Williams observed:

“It has become commonplace, in so many discussions, from “cancel culture” to the wider perils of life online, to mourn the decline of civility. When did we stop being able to disagree? What happened to nuance and complexity? Why all the ad hominem attacks? Why can’t we hear a problematic opinion without immediately issuing a death threat? What happened to kindness in public life?

These questions are particularly deployed in the free speech debate, with a ratchet effect: if you can’t say exactly what you like, and have people respond to you in a kind way (anything unkind counts as “cancellation” or “wokery”), then you have lost your right to speak; and given that freedom of speech is such a core tenet of the broader principle of liberty, you have lost everything.”

Cancel culture, like ‘wokeism’ is the tired shibboleth of our time, as testified by John Cleese in last years Channel 4 show John Cleese: Cancel Me and on a new show on the GB News channel. Imagine being so cancelled you had two tv shows to moan about it?

The right is on the offensive in this debate. Despite pursuing the horrendous immigration policies or advancing planet-wrecking climate economics, they have managed to frame the public debate as to be about civility and politeness for their opponents with complete licence to say what they like on their side, or they will have very hurt feelings. By seizing the discussion about ‘free speech’ they have diverted attention to the method of discussion and away from their, often heinous views and actions.

Writing in The Spectator, the former Herald columnist Iain Macwhirter, who had been sacked for a tweet deemed racist, called it ‘an assault on my integrity’. His article ‘How a tweet got me sacked’ is like a public exercise in deflection and exceptionalism.

The problem isn’t his views or the writing for which he is responsible, it’s the fault of others he explains: “The Herald isn’t the only publication that lives in fear of social media. The journalists who are addicted to Twitter are part of the problem. Free speech and independent journalism are finished if we submit to the caprice of doctrinaire online zealots.”

Newspapers don’t live in fear of social media, but it is an open and — more or less — democratic forum, Macwhirter was sacked not by ‘online zealots’ but by his editor. What columnists like this have had to adjust to is the openness of the new era. They don’t have the status and privilege of protection behind the printed word anymore, and some of them really hate it.

Reality check: it’s not acceptable to be racist on a public forum anymore.

That isn’t very difficult, and pleading ‘irony’ in retrospect doesn’t cut it.

Taking responsibility for your actions, ironically, is often a key message from the right, but it’s one they don’t want to accept for themselves in public discourse.

As Williams states: “This argument has always been pretty asymmetrical: the speech that constitutes the catalysing event, being free, has no duty of kindness upon it (how are you supposed to speak your mind if you have to be kind to everyone?), and yet the response must always be civil. The debate has — apologies for the jargon — its arse on backwards. The putative threat is from the “woke army”, liberals so high on their own sanctimony that they won’t rest until they’ve chased their target from public life.”

Few people are actually cancelled. Forums like Twitter need some protection of rules and structure, or they quickly descend into abuse. We live this out in the real world through codes of behaviour, tone and understanding. If you behave obnoxiously in the pub you will eventually be thrown out.

The ‘war on wokeism’ is a tired tirade of the new right who are appalled at getting called out for their repellant views. Now we have the phenomenon of Musk, a seemingly immensely stupid billionaire wrecking what has become an essential global social platform.

Scott Nover, who ‘writes about the internet’ has noted that the commercialisation that lies at the heart of Musks Twitter takeover is his own fault and his own doing. He writes: “Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter was so outlandishly high that a.) Twitter’s old board couldn’t say no, b.) Musk himself couldn’t afford it, and c.) it damned the entire company to significant debt and massive layoffs. Every part of this deal has been and continues to be stupid.”

Now we hear via Bloomberg that ‘Twitter is to be Sued for Mass Layoffs by Musk Without Enough Notice’. The lawsuit comes ‘as new boss plans to eliminate half of workforce’. It’s not going well. Creating new ethical and democratic forums out of the wreckage of the dictatorship of Big Tech has become a vital necessity.

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