The trolls we despise are our own creation

To kill off the poisonous notions of celebrity, we have to stop giving it our attention and act civilly to each other.

It’s easy to mock Paris Hilton.

She is the scarecrow that embodies everything we use to keep our morals flapping above the fields of indignity. With celebrity culture, the glitz of Hollywood has lit up long dormant beasts in each of us: because they’re on the big screen, they’re deserving of our vitriol, of our scorn. But we no longer direct rotten fruit at them, but rotten terms: Too fat, too skinny, cheater, liar, weirdo, skank, whore, drug addict, stupid, bimbo, loser, airhead, meaningless. Terms most of us left in the schoolyard, replacing them with conduct catered to civility and, indeed, common decency, are somehow allowed rebirth and fruition to be used at these idols of our indulgences, these effigies to narcissism.

Yet, those of us who casually and so easily mock the failings of young women we do not know, or largely harmless men with admittedly weird religions, are also quick to shake our fists and heads at rude online comments and bizarre blog threads; we are outraged at the targeting of people for making the mistake of, for example, reviewing technology or being a woman and having an open comment thread on the internet.

When we turn off the screen, a black monitor greets us with a darkened face and we have an answer. Do we even realise the casualness with which we dismiss celebrities as idiots, bimbos, wash-ups, has-beens, irrelevant? This ignorance on our part of targeting people who are, in fact, complete strangers – just more famous ones than online writers – is itself part of the problem. We’ve casually allowed for this environment of trolling, of harassment, because so many of us do it. We’ve built a culture of mockery, a religion of ridicule, where we drink the spirits of vitriol down parched throats, raw from directed anger. And we wonder where these ‘new’ beasts come from.

We created them. We’ve produced an environment where people like Charlotte Dawson attempt suicide because strangers on Twitter had direct access to someone they’d otherwise never be able to reach. Technology may be bringing us together, but no one ought to assume this is always a good thing. Celebrities and people on television have always been the target of casual hatred, of comments that dismiss them as persons with actual emotions, instead of entities flickering on a screen, or smiling from a glossy magazine; all that’s changed is Twitter and blogs and forums have allowed us to air talk that would’ve quickly evaporated at dinners and barbeques into a permanent format: often in ways allowing us to aim our hate directly at the celebrity in question, as with Dawson.

We like to think we’re better than celebrities: these entities with no emotions, these scarecrows of our own design, with the expensive smiles and poor judgements. They’re not real like our friends, our lovers, our families, we think, they exist in some other world beyond our mere mortal grasp. While this is true to some extent, it’s no reason to treat them with casual hatred and quick dismissals: if we really are better than them, surely that means we should demonstrate it, in not allowing even casual hatred to be a property we have. It’s easy to create scarecrows from the threads the screen provides, from the weird behaviour picked apart by gossip columnists, by the tiny increase in bulges etched into eternity by paparazzi; it’s much harder to fight against this machine that manufactures celebrities out of ordinary people, fed by screaming passion of voyeuristic indulgence.

In a global society increasingly growing weary of gods, we’ve become lax to a religion that creates them all the time, demanding the sacrifice of our decency.

There are multiple ways to make places like the internet and society in general a space in which adult discussion can occur. There are ways to combat the influence pundits, who sprout fallacies and untruths, have on political discourse in the most powerful countries in the world. One way is to grow a stable foundation of our own discourse. It’s to reclaim civility in a consistent way. It’s to say we’re better than this, we’re better than the hype machine, we’re better than the trolls.

There will always be strange people doing harmless things, always be celebrities who say nonsense like Paris Hilton and her homophobic ideas; but our passion and our anger are better served elsewhere than on strangers – no matter how big-named they are.

Celebrity does not imply talent. Celebrity is only made by attention. We should start killing the notion of "celebrity", replacing it with actual talent, actual ability. But to do that requires us to stop giving attention, to stop hurting our own humanity as moral beings: we’ve got to act civil – ie read and engage charitably, begin with some measure of respect, until such time as interlocutors do not reciprocate or demonstrate deserving of it, and so on. 

If we can’t even maintain a modicum of respect for a rather harmless young woman like Paris Hilton, is it any wonder we fail in facilitating proper dialogue on important matters with our opponents?

Paris Hilton: a celebrity we created. Photograph: Getty Images
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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt