Shortly after midnight on 1 January my phone began to vibrate repeatedly. Happy New Year messages from my many, many friends, a lot of whom actually attended my stag do and everything, I immediately and understandably assumed. But no, I’d accidentally set Twitter notifications to “on” again.
And the reason Twitter was going nuts was because Toby Young – a man who was banned from the set of a film based on his own life, who has a long history of sending appalling tweets objectifying women, who has in the past cited wheelchair ramps as a symptom of political correctness gone mad – had been appointed to the Office for Students, the government’s brand new higher education regulator.
The result has been a three day pile-on, in which seemingly the entire internet pored over every word Young has ever written, spoken or tweeted and then forgotten, for no other purpose than to rip the piss. There’s an Arthur C. Clarke story in which some monks set up a super-computer to list every possible name for God. This week, social media has become a super-computer for compiling every possible reason Toby Young might be unqualified for a serious government role.
I have, in all honesty, rather enjoyed much of this. Young and I first crossed paths in 2011, shortly after I had read and (genuinely, not a joke) enjoyed his book How To Lose Friends & Alienate People. At the time, I was an education journalist, and he was launching a school. More than that, he was Britain’s leading expert on exactly how to launch a school. So we chatted, on the record, about the difficulties of getting a proposal through the Department for Education processes, and I wrote it up as a story.
And then, he denounced me. “Bloody journalists,” he tweeted. “Can’t trust any of them!” Not wanting to burn a useful relationship, I rang him to find out what I’d got wrong, but best I could tell the problem was that I’d reported his criticisms of the DfE as “Young criticises DfE”, and he thought that it made him look bad. At any rate, being the sort of intensely petty person who still bears a grudge against that kid who still stole my blue toy at playschool back in 1985, all this means I’ve quite enjoyed watching Young get ripped to shreds.
Except, I probably shouldn’t have done, should I? Or at least, it doesn’t speak well of me that I did. After all, imagine how you’d feel if you got a new job, something you were genuinely excited and enthusiastic about, and the result was three days of public outrage taking in every even slightly embarrassing thing you’d ever done. Just imagine the horror of it. It’s not nice, is it?
And the thing is, despite what his defenders in the government or the right-wing media claim, we haven’t all laid into Young just because he’s a Tory: Tories are appointed to government sinecures all the time, without much more than a peep in response. But we haven’t all laid into him because he’s said sexist or classist or otherwise offensive things either.
We’ve also laid into him because he’s the kind of person you lay into. He’s got that awkward desperation to be liked by the cool kids that means there is no register he can use that’s so self-deprecating that it won’t result in someone calling him a dick. The dynamic reminds me of those social circles where there’s one person who doesn’t quite fit, and the others all bond by mocking them. There’s a word for this dynamic: bullying.
So I feel bad. Because the entire internet has colluded to ruin a man’s new year, in large part because he’s a bit embarrassing, a bit of a dork – and I’ve joined in. By writing this, under this headline, I’m joining in right now.
The thing is, though: I don’t feel that bad. Because Toby Young really has tweeted embarrassing, laddish things about women’s bodies, laughed at “joyless, sanctimonious” feminism, even downplayed the suicide of a Tory activist who had suffered from a campaign of bullying. He’s frequently taken the positions required to curry favour with a privileged Tory establishment. He punches down, not up.
The internet has been bullying Toby Young. And perhaps we should feel bad about that. But Young has always been a man to stand with a powerful, right-wing establishment against the niceties of political correctness and basic human decency. Perhaps this is what he would have wanted. That is my defence. Of me.