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How the internet dehumanised Chris Whitty

When a person’s existence is flattened into a joke, we enable cruelty against them.

By Sarah Manavis

There are a lot of awful things going on in the video of Chris Whitty being accosted by a group of men in a London park on Sunday (27 June), but the element that makes it the hardest to watch is, arguably, his vulnerability. Whitty doesn’t defend himself, likely for a number of reasons – not least of which the backlash he could provoke if he was seen shoving a member of the public. You can see the fear in his eyes, the paralysis of his body. He looks trapped. He’s helpless. 

The video of Whitty came after a string of related incidents where prominent figures, largely hated by the right, were attacked while out in public. BBC journalist Nick Watt experienced similar harassment while covering an anti-lockdown protest. Labour Party candidate Kim Leadbeater was shouted at on the street while out campaigning in Batley and Spen. Whitty himself was also the target of another anti-lockdown protest over the weekend where, according to Marianna Spring, a BBC journalist covering disinformation, protestors “chanted ‘treason’ by his home” and said “they wanted him hanged”.

Whitty has been one of the most prominent figures in the UK’s pandemic response since before the first lockdown. As the chief medical officer (CMO) for England, and the UK government’s chief medical adviser, he’s become the subject of countless memes, mainly down to his calming, nerdy presence. His face would appear alongside Noughties-style text with jokes about safety measures or in bad, nonsensical Photoshopped images in the wake of new restriction announcements. Facebook groups and Instagram accounts dedicated to “Chris Whitty appreciation” popped up throughout 2020. He has even had his own merch appear based on his government briefing appearances – the “Next Slide, Please” mug craze had one seller declare Whitty “more popular than Britney Spears”. Whitty has reached a level of celebrity that other medical advisers, such as chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, have failed to achieve, and is frequently papped by those who see him walking around central London.

But this level of exposure has brought about increased scrutiny and made him a target. This is not the first video of him being attacked on the street. In February, a clip of Whitty trying to order lunch from a food van showed a teenage boy approaching him, saying, “You’re a liar. You lie about the Covid-19 cases… stop lying to the TV, man.” Whitty himself has never encouraged his quasi-celebrity, or behaved notably differently to any other government adviser. But his popularity with the public has also made him a villain of the conspiracy theorist, anti-lockdown right – an emblem of what they believe is keeping us from going back, safely, to our pre-pandemic lives. 

Whitty has been put in an impossible position during this pandemic: he is the face of “the science”, the deliverer of bad news and hard facts, and one of the only people who could be made a scapegoat for unpopular government decisions. While Whitty isn’t entirely blameless – he is very much part of the government’s disastrous response to each new wave of this pandemic – he ultimately has little power in determining policy. At multiple moments in the past 15 months, he has reportedly urged the government to do the exact opposite of what it ended up doing. And yet Boris Johnson always has the excuse of saying he isn’t an expert, merely a politician doing his best to follow doctor’s orders. 

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With the rise of anti-lockdown sentiment, especially after the highly anticipated 21 June “Freedom Day” was pushed back by nearly a month, it’s easy to see why politicians like the Prime Minister and disgraced former health secretary Matt Hancock have been condemned by the public. But for the riled-up, violent-minded conspiracy theorists who truly believe this entire year has been one long hoax, the ultimate blame lies not with the buffoonish politicians of Downing Street, but with the scientists: the experts they believe are simply liars. 

There is another reason why Whitty has fallen victim to this nasty strain of harassment: this is what happens when a man is turned into a meme. He did not land in the crosshairs of the anti-lockdown movement due to a coin toss between him and Vallance, but because this is the inevitable effect of being moved from the category of “human person” to that of “joke”. Whitty’s meme status has helped to dehumanise him to the wider public, flattening his existence down to something purely emblematic, meaning that grabbing him by the jacket in broad daylight – in the middle of a spike in cases – isn’t seen as attacking a person, but the equivalent of defacing a monument. 

A lot has been said about our bad online habits since the pandemic began – as concerns grow about the implications our digital actions have for the rest of our lives. The rejoinder “Twitter isn’t real life” seems increasingly weak when our internet behaviour is having an impact on our physical reality.

In the case of Chris Whitty, we have to look at that video and ask: what could he have done differently? How does someone so prominent, so unrelentingly thrust before the public in an unpopular role, gain any control over that narrative? We have to readjust how we approach our public figures and think about the role our digital actions play in sealing their fate. Because the helplessness we see in that video is real, and very understandable. What else was Chris Whitty supposed to do?

[see also: Will this be the most feral Love Island yet?]

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