The nontroversy starts with a tweet or a quote ripped from an interview. It only needs a line or two because a paragraph might complicate things. The miscreant is then forced into representing an extreme position. A swarm of outraged tweets and thinkpieces descend on this caricatured version while the miscreant cannot defend or apologise for what was said because it wasn’t really said in that way, and any attempt to clarify what was meant appears craven and disingenuous. By the time the storm blows itself out, it has usually achieved 0.0001% of sod all.
A genuine gaffe is useful because it reveals an unpalatable truth. When Mitt Romney rubbished 47% of the American electorate or Godfrey Bloom used the phrase “bongo bongo land”, they displayed the tip of an iceberg of prejudice. The careless utterance may be unusually ugly but it doesn’t seem strange in context. But a nontroversy is bullishly obtuse regarding the bigger picture. During a recent example I saw someone tweet: “I’ve never heard of [redacted] before but they seem awful.” If only there were some kind of service on the internet that allowed you to search for people – a search engine, if you will – and learn more about them.
One problem is that the media landscape is structurally hostile to nuance, whether it’s the gladiatorial debate format favoured by the likes of the Today programme, the pressure to generate kneejerk opinions at short notice, or the sheer volume of websites recycling unsourced, out-of-context and even mistranslated quotes. Subtlety doesn’t sell. But bad habits aren’t imposed from the top down. Across blogs and social media you can see how the internet amplifies and facilitates the impulse to think the worst of people you have never met and to ignore any facts or context that might take the wind out of your indignation.
People in the public eye are no dummies. They’ve noticed how this works. Last week, I asked a musician about a sensitive subject. She refused to answer in any way and not, she said, because she objected to discussing it in our interview but because as soon as the words were out of her mouth she could see them winging their way across social media and clickbait news sites, mutating into something simplistic and inflammatory, and overshadowing anything else she might say. A few days later, another musician told me that whenever he was asked about politics he considered his options and went for the safest one, even if he felt it wasn’t honest or illuminating. Thus the nontroversy factory leads to self-censorship and calculated blandness.
You might argue that the world has bigger problems than a looming drought of celebrity opinion but politics has already demonstrated what happens when people become fearful of saying anything that might be misconstrued. It’s why you can watch an episode of Question Time and not hear a single memorable sentence or interesting opinion from an MP. It’s why safe phrases such as “hard-working families” proliferate like mould. Because there is no mileage in being interesting. Even as we complain about the milky timidity of political discourse, we are, en masse, quite prepared to pounce on anyone who says the wrong thing. We are gaffe-addicted, desperate for the smoking gun even if it’s more like a dribbling water-pistol. Now non-politicians are learning this lesson fast. A recent magazine cover story on Mumford & Sons revealed a group of men who didn’t appear to have a single opinion about anything in the world. It was like a Question Time panel consisting of four Grant Shapps, each holding a banjo.
When Riot Grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna was interviewed for Radio 4’s Weekend Woman’s Hour last week, I was reminded of something the late music critic Steven Wells wrote about Riot Grrrl in 1993. He was dismayed that the British band Huggy Bear had “had their ideology combed over, examined, misinterpreted, rewritten and kicked to death a hundred times. Talk about breaking a butterfly on a wheel.” How much worse things have become in the past 20 years, how much more intolerant of contradictions and mistakes, and how much less likely to produce artists as fearlessly outspoken as Hanna. The quicker we are to distort and condemn, and the slower to understand or forgive, the more things we purport to care about will simply go unsaid.